“Promising Young Woman” is a deliciously dark and wonderful combo of style, substance and artfully utilized pop jams.
Glossy and candy-colored, though splendidly grim when it needs to be, writer/director Emerald Fennell’s confidently subversive feature debut (★★★½ out of four; rated R; in theaters now, available Friday as video on demand) gleefully walks the line between romantic comedy and revenge thriller while twisting their tropes. Boosted by a complex and standout performance by Carey Mulligan, “Young Woman” explores timely themes such as toxic masculinity and sexual assault but also doesn’t let up in terms of dark humor and sinister satisfaction.
And if you’re a dude who sees himself in this movie? Consider yourself on blast.
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Cassie (Mulligan) is the promising young woman of note, a wickedly intelligent (and fairly wicked, period) barista who dropped out of med school after a mysterious traumatic event, which gradually reveals itself through the movie. Her parents (Clancy Brown and Jennifer Coolidge) and even her boss (Laverne Cox) feel she should be doing so much more with her life.
As it turns out, she is: Cassie grumpily slings coffee by day, but at night she goes out to clubs, pretends to be intoxicated, lures in unsuspecting “good guys” who want to take advantage of her condition, and doles out hard-core lessons on consent.
Vengeance is also very much on her mind, with plans of comeuppance for men and women from her past, and a means of fast-tracking her agenda arrives one day when a fellow former student, pediatric surgeon Ryan (Bo Burnham), shows up in her shop. However, he’s unassuming, self-deprecating and kind – pretty much unlike every other man she comes in contact with – and Cassie begins to develop feelings for him, creating a conflict within her Batman-esque mission.
Mulligan, who earned a best actress Oscar nomination for 2009’s “An Education,” will be back in the conversation as the wry and determined Cassie. She exudes cool, and it’s seriously enjoyable watching her pull the switch from falling-down drunk to scarily sober on her male prey. Yet Mulligan also conveys the deep psychological damage that’s been done: While Cassie is extremely organized when it comes to avenging, she forgets her 30th birthday.
Fennell’s casting for the men who run afoul of Cassie is rather keen as well. Instead of creepers or jocks, she rounds up a crew of actors – including Adam Brody, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Max Greenfield – who are known for playing nice guys to take a not-so-drunk Cassie home when they should be getting her an Uber. It drives home the point that even bad boys come in nerdy packages.
There are some archetypal jerks, like the construction workers catcalling Cassie on a morning walk home, though they’re withered by her unnerving, icy stare as a trippy cover of “It’s Raining Men” plays in the background. Fennell’s use of music is exceptional: One of the scenes where Ryan breaks down some of Cassie’s walls finds him singing Paris Hilton’s cheesy and catchy “Stars Are Blind” in the middle of a pharmacy. And an ominous, orchestral remix of “Toxic” – like Britney Spears by way of Bernard Herrmann – plays as the steely Cassie, clad in a multicolored wig and latex nurse’s costume, heads out in search of final retribution.
Even when you think “Promising Young Woman” is over, Fennell isn’t done putting its characters – or her audience – through their paces. With Mulligan in tow, she emerges as a stunning new filmmaking voice with a cunning heroine who’s impossible not to adore. And, for some, fear.