Review: Promising Young Woman (2020)

Director/Screenwriter: Emerald Fennell
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Clancy Brown, Jennifer Coolidge, Laverne Cox
Genres: Drama, Comedy
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong violence including sexual assault, language throughout, some sexual material and drug use
Release Dates: 12/25/20 (Theatres); 1/15/21 (Streaming)
Runtime: 1h 53min
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 92%
Where to Watch: Limited Theatres
Oscar Nomination(s): Likely–Actress, Original Screenplay; Possible–Picture, Costume Design; Long-Shot–Supporting Actor (Burnham), Director

How do I review a film that I unabashedly adore, and one that receives a rare perfect score from yours truly? It’s my favorite film of 2020 so far — there’s still more to see, but I highly doubt anything will be able to top this. Promising Young Woman marked my first time at a theater in person in several months; even though Regal Cinemas has been closed for quite some time, my local indie theater has remained open, and I received a $50 gift card for Christmas [from my mom] and this movie seemed like the first one to see using that GC. I’d heard amazing reviews from critics lucky enough to get to see the film a year ago, at Sundance; some even praised it as the best film of the year, and even though I was excited to see it, I doubted it could possibly be that good. The trailers were intriguing, and I’ve been dying to see Carey Mulligan in a juicy role, but I didn’t expect it to exceed my expectations as much as it did. It can be disappointing when some movies are hyped so much that you feel like you let fellow film critics/cinephiles down when expressing your dislike for something (see: Da 5 Bloods), but this film was not like that at all.

Where to begin? Well, for starters, it’s best to watch this movie knowing as little as possible about it. Sure, you can watch the trailers (maybe just one of them), but don’t read too many full synopses and avoid spoiler-filled reviews (that’s generally a good idea if you haven’t seen the movie) — something I’ll try to do here. What writer-director Emerald Fennell — in her feature film debut — does in Promising Young Woman is wholly unexpected, sometimes in ways that are shocking and not easy to watch. Perhaps all you need to know is that this isn’t your typically female-led revenge thriller. It’s sometimes funny, jarring, charming, pretty much every adjective you can think of — and Fennell does so brilliantly, in a script she wrote herself. All of the dialogue, acting, and plot points feel natural and make sense; they’re completely grounded in reality, even though it’s not necessarily one that we’d like to admit is there. 

Of course, I can’t rave about the film without praising Mulligan’s tremendous work here; she has long been one of my favorite working actors ever since her breakthrough role — and her only Oscar-nominated performance thusfar — in 2009’s An Education. Finally, she gets an incredibly juicy role that enables her to show off her comedic acting chops as well as her already-present dramatic chops. She fully sells her character Cassie’s actions, as well as her tragic backstory, which is revealed slowly and expertly. She’s my pick for the best performance of 2020, and, like the film itself, is unlikely to be topped. On that note, I will not only be surprised but angry if she is snubbed for a Best Actress nomination at the Oscars. 

I also have to shout out the rest of the cast, notably Bo Burnham as Cassie’s new charming, adorkable boyfriend, Ryan. In one particularly brilliant scene set to Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind” (an underrated pop gem, in my opinion), they dance and fall in love, singing the song in a pharmacy. The tonal shift that follows is all the more shocking yet it also works. Mulligan and Burnham have such great chemistry that you can’t help but root for them. Other great performances round out the supporting cast, including Laverne Cox [finally] in a role that has nothing to do with her being transgender, and her brief moments and scenes with Mulligan are a great way to see Cassie as a complete person. Allison Brie, Molly Shannon, Connie Britton, and Alfred Molina (in an unexpected not-quite-An Education reunion) all do fabulous work with minimal screen time. I’d also love to see a SAG nomination for this ensemble.

Is Promising Young Woman a perfect film? Yes, in my view, it is. I was originally going to give it an grade, but when I thought about it some more, I couldn’t find any flaws with it. Even though I was shell-shocked with the ending, which has been fairly divisive among viewers, it feels like the most honest ending, as Fennell herself has said. Just because it doesn’t have the happy ending we’d expected doesn’t mean it isn’t the perfect ending for Cassie and her journey.