Promising Young Woman (2020) reviewed by Jonathan Berk

Writer and director Emerald Fennell’s film Promising Young Woman (2020) is a clear stand-out of the year. Cassandra (Carey Mulligan) is tormented by a past trauma, and releases her anger at the predatory men who unknowingly walk into her traps. The film is a twisted dark comedy that has something to say, and it does so in an unrelentingly captivating way. 

Mulligan has been good in many movies before this one, but this is the defining performance. Her character has so many layers to work through, and Mulligan delivers on them all…sometimes even simultaneously. The movie is methodical in its unraveling of the events that led Cassie to her current nighttime activities. However, it’s revealed rather early on that Cassie is no pushover, and has a strict determination in her work as she is clearly willing to risk it all to accomplish her goals. Yet, there is a vulnerability that is revealed, and a major wall that threatens to come crumbling down after Ryan (Bo Burnham) shows up. 

Carey Mulligan stars as Cassie in director Emerald Fennell’s PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features

Burnham is endlessly charming and witty, which is put to great use by Fennell’s script. Cassie is resistant to her old college friend, but his relentless and slightly hopeless attempts to woo her chisels away at the hard exterior she’s meticulously built over the years. One of my favorite lines in the film comes as a result of this slowly developing relationship, when Ryan proclaims he is going to purchase her a gift…I won’t reveal what it is, just so you can experience the delivery of the line organically. Nevertheless, Ryan brings a bit of levity into a very weighty subject. 

That’s really the most impressive element to this film. Not to take away from the staggering visuals that had stuck with me since seeing the trailer towards the beginning of 2020 so much that when I began watching the film I thought I’d already seen it – however, I had not – but there are some incredibly striking images and sequences that will leave an impression in your mind for days to come. Regardless, it’s not the visuals that stood out, but rather the balancing of tones and story elements. This film is a gritty revenge crime story meshed with romantic comedy elements and a rites of passage tale…three things that would be difficult for a veteran director to tackle, yet Fennell does it seamlessly. Not once do any of the elements feel out of place or take you out of the film. Promising Young Women deftly moves from the comedic moments, to the tragic ones, to the frustrating ones, to the happy ones and everything in between. 

Carey Mulligan stars as “Cassandra” in director Emerald Fennell’s PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features

The supporting cast of this film is outstanding as well, with Alison Brie, Clancy Brown, Jennifer Coolidge, Laverne Cox, Adam Brody, Sam Richardson, Ray Nicholson, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Connie Britton, Molly Shannon, and Max Greenfield all taking small, but important roles. Still, it’s the leads that really stand out and make this movie unforgettable. Promising Young Woman earns the Must See rating and is in theaters starting on Christmas Day.

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