CW: sexual assault
Phew, this month has been a solid reminder that films getting award nominations or buzz aren’t here to play. It’s been a rewarding but intense month on the Collab, and this week is no exception. Our pick this week aligns so well with some of the themes we most enjoy here and that we’ve been looking forward to reviewing for months. Will we love what this one does…even if it’s toxic?
Promising Young Woman
Years after her best friend’s assault at a party, a medical school dropout seeks vengeance against the people and systems that failed her.
It’s tough being a business bro these days, isn’t it? You can’t schmooze your clients at the strip club or even go to the men only golf club for meetings with all of those pesky women coworkers around. Not like the good ol’ days.
As they bemoan their plight, a group of aforementioned bros notice a woman so drunk she can barely remain conscious where she sits. While a couple of the guys joke about taking advantage of the woman’s state, ahem, “nice guy” Jerry approaches under the guise of ensuring she makes it home safely. Because the woman has lost her phone, she can’t use a rideshare app, and Jerry gallantly offers to share an Uber-like but not Uber ride home. Of course, the ride ends up at Jerry’s apartment, where he invites the woman up for a drink. Though she is on the brink of passing out and repeatedly asks what Jerry is doing, he is determined to take advantage of the situation…until the woman lets him know very clearly that she is perfectly sober.
The woman in this situation is Cassie, a former medical school student who acts out this saga nearly every night–most memorably with a coked-out novelist who insists that he’s such a nice guy. Why? Because during a party that many of the med school cohort attended, Cassie’s best friend Nina was raped, disbelieved, and dropped out of school. The events destroyed the futures of two promising young women, as Cassie dropped out soon after to care for her traumatized friend, who ultimately killed herself.
By day, Cassie lives a rather bleak life, to the point that she forgets her own 30th birthday. Living at home with her parents and working in a coffee shop, her parents and boss Gail worry that Cassie has no friends and no interests…beyond keeping color-coded tally of her evening activities in a notebook under her bed.
Out of the blue, Ryan, a guy from Cassie’s med school class, stops in at the coffee shop and recognizes his former classmate. Now a doctor, Ryan clumsily admits that he had a crush on Cassie during school and always wondered why she dropped out. Though Cassie is skeptical, she eventually agrees to a lunch date with Ryan. As a bonus, Cassie learns about the exploits of her former classmates, including a former friend’s recent delivery of twins, and Nina’s rapist, Al, preparing for his upcoming wedding.
Though Cassie finds Ryan’s awkward earnestness sweet, their relationship moves with stops and starts as she navigates giving a functional relationship a go. However, the surprisingly sweet rom-com style romance (including the mandatory karaoke-inspired scene) takes a definite backseat to Cassie’s schemes. With more information about her former classmates, she hones in on those who failed Nina the most: former friend Madison who didn’t believe Nina’s story, the dean who dismissed Nina’s claims, the lawyer who pressured Nina to drop her case, and, of course, Al.
Cassie has some pretty twisted schemes up her sleeve for those who have wronged Nina, including setting Madison up to wake up in a hotel room with a strange man and no memory of what’s happened, as well as making Dean Blackwell believe her daughter is alone at a wild frat party. Using the same logic that condemned Nina, Cassie’s vengeance underscores the dangers of dismissing victims’ accounts while giving the benefit of the doubt to abusers.
Briefly, Cassie seems to embrace the advice of Nina’s mother to move on at last. But can Cassie really set aside her revenge plans when she still has her biggest fish to fry in the form of Al? After Madison reveals one of Al’s friends made a video of Nina’s assault, Cassie learns some new details that unleash a fresh wave of rage. Striding into Al’s bachelor party as a sexy nurse accompanied by a killer instrumental version of Britney Spears’s “Toxic,” you know it’s going to be a memorable evening…though perhaps not in the ways anticipated.
4/5 Pink Panther Heads
There’s so much to like about this film. The themes that interrogate rape culture, complicity, and the failure of justice are powerful and very rarely receive much attention on film. I wonder if the persistent underrepresentation of women and people of color in director roles is at play here. *Shrug* And, truly, we are not worthy of the soundtrack and the beautiful, glossy colors contrasting with the awful behavior of the characters. I’m so happy to see Carey Mulligan onscreen again, and I can’t find fault with any of the performances, honestly. The dialogue is so sharp and made me laugh out loud at times.
However, there are some inconsistencies that prevent this film from being a new favorite for me. There are a lot of times this is frustrating to watch, as there are virtually no likeable characters here. If, like me, your cynical mind is always at work, you won’t be overly surprised by this…but you may still be annoyed that some characters are very close to doing the right thing only to easily backtrack into the convenient thing.
I feel like another broken record on the internet at this point, but I do take issue with the film’s ending as well, largely because of the abrupt tonal shift. There are some issues with tone throughout, as there are a lot of times during Cassie’s scenes with Ryan that we seem to be in a charming romantic comedy. We also get a number of satisfying revenge scenes with Cassie’s self-assured swagger, though admittedly some of her tactics are more unsettling than anything else. But both of these concepts give way to a bleak ending that really pulls the rug out from under the viewer and gives us the most dramatic tonal shift yet. It’s unsatisfying to feel that Cassie is a victim when she begins the film by reclaiming some degree of power, even though I suppose she is pulling the strings in the end. I can’t help feeling that if Billy Loomis can fake his own death in Scream, surely a scheming med school dropout could have done the same (does a spoiler from a 1996 movie count as a spoiler?).
I will say I got a lot of enjoyment from this film and will make plans to see Emerald Fennell’s next picture as soon as possible.
2 thoughts on “Promising Young Woman, or: You Know That You’re Toxic”