‘Promising Young Woman’ is an explosive debut that mixes fun with fury

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How best to describe Promising Young Woman? I could call it a revenge film. A black comedy. A feminist fantasy. A social commentary born out of the #MeToo movement. There’s even a Paris Hilton sing-along that pushes this into oddly cute romcom territory at one point.

But no, none of those labels quite fit. Filled with rage and topped with candy-colored sprinkles, Promising Young Woman is fun, smart and thrilling, but never at the expense of what lives at its core: a heart of darkness that’s been blackened by rape culture. This isn’t the sort of film that’s meant to be shoved into a neat little box, and any attempt to pigeonhole it would do it a massive disservice. All you need to know is that writer-director Emerald Fennell has crafted one of the best, most unique movies of the year.

When we first meet Cassie (Carey Mulligan), she’s falling over drunk while alone at a club. But things aren’t quite what they seem. Cassie explains it best: “Every week, I go to a club. I act like I’m too drunk to stand. And every week, a nice guy comes over to see if I’m OK.” It’s like the date-rape edition of “To Catch a Predator”: She entraps men who take her home thinking she’s black-out drunk, and – SURPRISE – she’s stone-cold sober. If that revelation can’t scare the male race into giving a shit about consent, what can?

As her weekend hobby would suggest, Cassie isn’t living her best life. She works a dead-end job at a coffee shop while still living with her parents, and she’s so disconnected from the world that she forgets her 30th birthday. A former medical student, Cassie dropped out of school under what she describes as “unusual circumstances.” When a reunion with an old classmate (Bo Burnham) reopens past wounds, Cassie sets off on a dangerous path to get back at the people who threw her life off track all those years ago.

Always a stunner, Mulligan meets Fennell’s wild directorial swings with equal ferocity. Her Cassie gives off a vibe that’s somehow indifferent, threatening, heartbroken, and utterly furious all at the same time. When another character accuses her of being crazy, her response is a matter of fact, “you know, I really don’t think I am.” And honestly, she could be right. There’s a steadfast, almost calm approach to Mulligan’s performance, and it’s the perfect fit for this complex character. There’s no need for her to scream; her eyes shoot daggers at her targets as she flashes her sweet smile.

Fennell juggles her star-studded cast with aplomb, as the likes of Alison Brie, Connie Britton, Laverne Cox, Molly Shannon, Adam Brody, Max Greenfield, Jennifer Coolidge, and Alfred Molina all make quick but memorable appearances. Fennell displays a knack for making every moment of screen time count, with a script that’s tight, quippy, and keeps us on our toes. She’s the captain of this ship, and we’re more than happy to follow her blind. With a screenplay as bold and subversive as this one, Fennell has to nail the precarious balance of social commentary with a multifaceted perspective, and she pulls it off. The “bad” characters aren’t purely bad, and Cassie certainly isn’t all good. And it’s that commitment to an even-handed approach that makes the extraordinary third act all the more compelling.

Like Halloween candy with razor blades, the toxicity present in every frame is dressed up to look like a pastel paradise, with the set design and costumes awash with florals, pink, and an overall feminine feel. If Focus Features decided to market Promising Young Woman as a 5-movies-in-1 deal, they wouldn’t be totally off base. Funny, distressing, enticing, and twisty, each movie living inside this one is an incendiary treat.

Promising Young Woman opens at Tower Theater Miami on December 25th. For showtimes, click here.

Lauren Cohen

Lauren Cohen is the Miami Film Festival's associate director of programming. She also runs the Festival’s membership level for young professionals, CineClub. Learn more about Lauren on Programmers.