The narrative structure of Promising Young Woman is a wonderful lie that, in a way becoming its own meta-metaphor, establishes a promising future that gets destroyed. It’s a story built on small moments that reverse engineer a character who finds herself in a place that is difficult to understand and appreciate with, as it turns out, the ultimate goal of simply proving that the task is impossible.
Cassandra (Carey Mulligan) is a troubled woman when we meet her and the film leaves us to piece together why as we follow along with the pseudo-routine that her life has become. She’s 30, lives at home, works in a coffee shop, has no goals, and goes out most nights to pretend she’s very drunk so that men will “help” her. The routine gets interrupted by the return of a man she knew in med school, and the sudden notification that another man from her past is getting married. These events move Cassandra to spin together a web of plans that seem to only have any actual goal in the most academic of senses. On the other hand, she has a little notebook she has been formulating plans in for years, but it’s unclear if “Revenge – Person X” is something that solidified much before.
While there is a plot to analyze, it’s both irrelevant and unnecessarily revealing to visit. “Rape Revenge” is practically a genre at this point, and you’d be hard-pressed to keep Promising Young Woman out of it, but it has as much in common with Sci-Fi/Fantasy, in the sense that a work might include warp speed, immortals, or elves, in order to not actually be about any of those of things. Here, things are certainly closer to home, but it is equally the examination of a different reality, even if this is one that people find themselves in. A woman was raped. Cassandra is trying to get revenge-ish. She meets a guy (Bo Burnham) that she finally has an exchange with that isn’t about trying to expose how horrible he is. After trudging through years of somehow coercing herself to stay in motion, a catalyst sparks more ambitious concerns. But, she’s never any less lost, and none of it is what things are about anyway.
Writer/Director Emerald Fennell manages a delivery that reminds of Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird in that it offers up something nearly impossible and rarely attempted, the utterly unique as the hopelessly mundane. The two films also share a near perfection of scene construction, with every moment teasing out bits of Cassandra’s psyche, and not a second wasted. Perhaps best, the two films are somewhat open when it comes to precisely what they’re after. As if mimicking Cassandra, or building itself out of her, Fennell’s screenplay would have to have answers to be after something concrete, instead of just trying to force someone to look at something.
It’s a film that is at its best during the least “interesting” of moments, because Mulligan is at her most impressive. Pretending to be drunk isn’t as easy as people might think, but pretending to be pretending to be drunk is next level, and her ability to move between Cassandra’s “moods,” for lack of a better word, should put her at the top of the list for award consideration. She’s hopeless, and something about her as a person is all but completely removed, but when she is confronting men trying to take advantage of her, some part of her manages to exist again. That’s the sort of thing that notes in the margin of the script don’t deliver.
But, opening her birthday present with her parents is an even better scene, more difficult acting, and no one will pay attention to it, because it’s magnificently boring. A scene with Cassandra hitting a truck with a tire iron feels out of place, and she doesn’t even speak, but it’s a gem of a microcosm that any number of actresses might have left feeling hollow. A short, post-scene scene with a thug being sent home without doing his job is not just a wry twist in the plot, but an opportunity for Mulligan to again move into a different gear of wondering out loud who Cassandra is. Scenes like this, humble as they are, pull everything together here by letting Mulligan struggle through the impossibilities.
At the end, you’ll find out that you were never watching the movie you thought you were, but that knowledge shouldn’t distract from your viewing, because you were never watching the movie you thought you were anyway.