There’s a scene near the beginning of PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN where Cassie (Carey Mulligan), our avenging angel, gets catcalled by construction workers. Disheveled and devouring a very messy breakfast sandwich, Cassie stops in her tracks, turns towards the men, and simply STARES at them. No quippy comebacks, no yelling at them — she just stands there, and stares. The unnerved men quickly turn to name-calling, and then leave when they realize they’re not going to get the result they want.
This is the core of who Cassie is; fearless, confrontational, and numbed by rage. She gives zero fucks; her only goal is to throw men off guard and teach them the errors of their toxic masculine ways.
The night before, we meet a very inebriated Cassie in a club packed with men, which we see in an extended sweep over the dance floor while Charli XCX’s “Boys” plays (I fucking LOVED the hilarity in this scene). As three male coworkers notice her and have a discussion about what a shame it is when hot girls act that way, “nice guy” Jerry (Adam Brody) goes over to see if she’s okay, and offers to call a car to take her home.
BUT OF COURSE on the way, Jerry redirects the driver to his apartment and drags the barely coherent Cassie upstairs for a nightcap. Once he has her on the bed, he literally pounces on her, kissing and undressing her, and replying “Shhhhhh. You’re safe. You’re okay.” every time she asks what he’s doing. As he removes her underwear, she sits up and reveals she’s actually totally sober, completely shocking him.
In this way, we’re introduced to Cassie’s weekly recreation: getting dressed up, heading to a club, and pretending to be very, very, VERY messily intoxicated — going home with a man, and then revealing that she’s completely sober after he starts sexually assaulting her almost-unconscious body (Y’all are never gonna look at McLovin the same way again).
Details about why she’s doing this are slowly revealed. Once a star med student, Cassie was on track to becoming a Doctor until a tragic incident at a Frat party with her friend Nina caused them both to drop out. Now 30, Cassie lives at home with her parents (Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown) and works at a coffee shop with her friend and boss Gail (Laverne Cox) — with everyone around her wondering when she’s going to just “get over it” and get back to living her life.
But to Cassie, this IS living her life. And the only thing that changes it is the appearance of a former classmate, Ryan. After coming into the coffee shop, Ryan’s flattery and persistence earn him a date. Once Cassie learns that he’s still in touch with the man responsible for her and Nina leaving school, she creates a plan of revenge designed to wreck everyone involved.
Cassie’s revenge is not blood-soaked; her plans are very intricate, and very precise. They’re designed to put each person in the place of the victims and make them rethink the choices they made at the time. She gives them a chance to redeem themselves, and if they don’t, she pulls the trigger on a devastating outcome. Broken by the guilt of what happened and driven by love and grief, she pushes her own safety to the limit — because who cares? The ONLY THING that matters is punishing the people responsible.
Writer and Director Emerald Fennell soaked the film in candy-coated pastels and filled the soundtrack with upbeat pop songs; a trick that makes you think you’re watching is a fantastical rom-com, and not the poisonous tale that unfolds. But don’t be fooled: PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN is wickedly sharp and swings at the issues of consent and culpability from all sides.
I know this film will get not all men’d to death, but honestly, that’s part of the point. This is a film designed to make you think about how our society gives men a pass, and how easy it is to excuse a criminal act as “We were just kids!” (I’m with you, Cassie – if I hear that one more fucking time …). And yes, what happens in this film will absolutely enrage you. People are going to HATE IT, just as much as others LOVE IT. To be clear: I’m firmly in the LOVE camp.
To those who say that WOMAN isn’t, or can’t be, a comedy — I would reply that I think it’s okay to wink while you’re smashing the patriarchy. Honestly as women, if we aren’t able to laugh about how ridiculously awful it is to feel threatened every single time a man approaches us, we wouldn’t be able to make it though even a single goddamn day.