Don't you know that you're toxic?
Promising Young Woman | Focus Features | Comedy Thriller | 1H 54M
by Emerald Fennell
Nominated for five academy awards, including best picture, best director and best actress, Promising Young Woman follows one woman’s journey of revenge over the horrific rape of her best friend in college.
The brilliance of the film is that it is not a blanket statement on the issue of our rarely acknowledged rape culture but delves into the nuance of toxic masculinity and how it continues to sustain itself today. There are plenty of examples of men taking advantage of women in the picture, but the film goes further showing exactly how apathetic “nice guys” are to the core issue. The strength of Fennell’s narrative drives this point forward, and the film's shocking twist is what brings the entire film together. This moment ties the film's dark humour and theme of rape culture together to ask the audience to analyze just how engrained toxic masculinity is in our popular culture.
The film follows Cassandra Thomas (Carey Mulligan), a med school dropout working at a coffee shop as she is about to turn thirty. When she is not a work, Cassandra spends her time at nightclubs pretending to be blackout drunk. At the club, she is approached by men offering her a “safe” ride home, to which, she accepts. These seemingly "nice guys" end up changing their plans and taking Cassandra home, despite clear indications that she is too drunk to give consent. When these men try and take advantage of an isolated and “intoxicated” Cassandra, she calmly drops hers drunken act and asks the guy “what are you doing?” Gobsmacked by Cassandra sobriety, these men quickly change their attitudes to protect their “nice guy” image. Cassandra calls them out for what they are, a predator taking advantage of a woman unable to give consent. She then threatens to ruin their lives if they continue to prey on women.
This tale of revenge gets complicated when the film introduces the character of Ryan (Bo Burnham), an old friend and former med school student who is now working as a pediatrician. Ryan is an escape from Cassandra’s life of pain, and their cutesy relationship is a welcomed tone in her personal life. The film quickly cements a desire for things to go well for them, but this is not a romantic comedy, and the tale of revenge comes back in a haunting way. As much as Fennell wants us to laugh with and love these characters, she too wants us to challenge our expectations of these tropes. The romantic comedy aesthetic the film carries is perhaps the most brutal condemnation the film gives. The sense here is that Promising Young Woman is a response to the mainstream culture's use of women for the overall benefit and sexual gratification of men.
The disappointment I have with the film is that I think the film could have gone further with its own pop style. There are brief moments of hyper stylized pop imagery, like the scene with Cassandra and Ryan dancing in the pharmacy, but the rest of the film feels like its holding back. The colours and lighting are present in most scenes, but the flashiness and energy of the camera is not. This commitment to style would perhaps amplify the films ending and its critique of the pop art form in general. Additionally, small flourishes of character building details like the pop mania of the pharmacy scene to the cutesy traditionally and innocent details Cassandra’s parents’ house feel too sparse from one another, and the connective tissue between these environment isn't there. The result feels a little unimaginative and almost shows Fennell's cards too well.
That said there's lots of praise to give the film, particularly the male cast in the movie. This comment might seem strange for the subject matter of the film, but having these male characters portrayed by comedians and sitcom stars kind of acts as a response and critique to the mainstream films and television shows these men have starred in. These movies, from Superbad to New Girl, participate at one level on relying on the exploitation of women’s sexuality, which is often played for humour. I mean, we even have Jennifer Coolidge, who quite famously played Stifler’s mom in American Pie. A film series hell bent on sexualizing women for jokes.
The success of Promising Young Woman is that it creates this conversation about rape culture that is silenced by our popular media and even in our daily lives. Fennell has crafted a dark and funny film that is equally discomforting for the audience. Promising Young Woman, by Emerald Fennell, is a great debut from a talented writer and I’m looking forward to what comes next from her.