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Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Promising Young Woman, or: You Know That You’re Toxic

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?

The Film:

Promising Young Woman

The Premise:

Years after her best friend’s assault at a party, a medical school dropout seeks vengeance against the people and systems that failed her.

The Ramble:

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.

In a nightclub featuring red furniture, a man sits next to Cassie, a blonde woman who appears to be very intoxicated.

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.

In a pink and blue pastel coffee shop called Make Me Coffee, Cassie and her supervisor, a Black woman with long curly hair, serve a customer.

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.

Cassie, wearing a white dress covered in roses, sits in a diner booth across from Ryan, a man wearing glasses and a plaid shirt.

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.

Cassie empties the last of a bottle of wine into a glass for Madison, a woman with short dark hair, over a restaurant table.

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.

The Rating:

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.

Would my darling blog wife plot an elaborate revenge scheme on this one’s behalf or pretend it never happened at all? Find out in her review!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

The Art of Self-Defense, or: Typing This Is Difficult with My Weak Woman Fingers

You could argue that toxic masculinity inevitably has adverse effects on mental health (which it does). Otherwise, this week’s film serves as a final reminder that we have utterly failed to stick to our theme during this month of highlighting mental health. I can live with this, especially as I feel this month’s theme on the Collab was very good for my mental health, personally.

The Film:

The Art of Self-Defense

The Premise:

After he is the victim of a violent attack, mild-mannered Casey decides to embrace the masculine art of karate in a quest to no longer live in fear.

The Ramble:

*Spoilers follow*

Casey Davies is the sort of person who awkwardly defends his boss to his dude bro coworkers and apologizes profusely to his dog (but, honestly, you might be a sociopath if you don’t). An accountant who keeps to himself and rejects the swagger of toxic masculinity, Casey is nonetheless intrigued by the fearless confidence of his rather mediocre coworkers.

A man stands in an office kitchen, speaking to another man who is seated.

One night, after Casey is attacked by a motorcycle gang, his life changes in unexpected ways. The violence of the assault shakes Casey to his core, and it no longer feels enough to quietly keep to himself and hope for the best. Uninterested in returning to work and too terrified to even go outside after dark, Casey decides to buy a handgun for self-defense, though the mandatory waiting period means several days must pass for him to buy a firearm.

In the mean time, Casey strolls past a karate dōjō and wanders inside, drawn to the discipline, power, and strength of the practice. As the Sensei puts it, karate is forming words with your fists and feet–a concept that appeals to the traumatized Casey immensely.

A man in a black karate uniform, a karategi, poses with one fist extended.

Though karate requires rigorous and humbling training to earn even the lowest ranking of a yellow belt, Casey fully embraces his role as a student. He no longer feels a gun is needed as karate will teach him the skill of punching with the feet and kicking with his hands (whatever the fuck that means). Besides, the 11th rule of the dōjō is that guns are for the weak; considering that the karate master and founder of the dōjō was killed in a suspicious gun accident while hiking, this rule is taken quite seriously.

When Casey earns the yellow belt, it becomes his entire identity as he buys only yellow foods and orders a custom yellow belt so he can feel the confidence of his achievement always. However, even as he celebrates his accomplishments, Casey begins to notice the flaws in the hierarchy Sensei controls: female instructor Anna will seemingly never earn a black belt despite her skills, and blue belt Henry seems destined to stay at this level eternally.

A woman wearing a white gi looks fiercely at a man facing her.

Still, Casey is determined to master karate and become the best, most hypermasculine version of himself possible. In order to do so, Sensei advises Casey to hold onto the yellow belt even though it doesn’t feel earned, start listening to the toughest music (metal), stop coddling his pet dachshund, and take up the hobby of learning German instead of French.

By following Sensei’s lead, Casey gains an air of authority based on fear rather than respect. He even earns a spot at the coveted night class, widely understood as the hardcore version of the day class. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s at the legendary night class that things take a dark turn: arms are broken, teeth knocked out, and Anna beats new black belt Thomas within an inch of his life. During the class cooldown, Casey can no longer deny how sexist the dōjō is, as he discovers the women’s changing room is basically a utility closet with a few towels thrown in. Worse, as the newbie, he must suffer the supposedly horrible indignity of Anna’s weak woman hands massaging him.

A man in black karategi stands in the middle of a mat, speaking to karate students lined up in a row facing him.

Though Sensei’s idiotic words of wisdom have covered his true intentions well to this point, it becomes clear that he’s a much more sinister figure. Claiming to have located the leader of the motorcycle gang responsible for the attack on Casey, Sensei encourages him to beat up the man. Casey does fight the man and seriously injures him, which Sensei records on film. Suspiciously, Casey returns home to find his dog has been attacked, suffering from what appears to be a punch from a foot.

After confronting Sensei, Casey realizes his instructor has the upper hand with the recording of his student violently attacking a man without provocation. Sensei asks Casey to join him for an unspecified errand, which of course ends up being joining his motorcycle gang to beat up a hapless victim that night. It’s Casey’s job to find the perfect target; what could possibly go wrong?

The Rating:

4/5 Pink Panther Heads

Ooooooooh, where to begin? I’m still puzzling over this one, which succeeds in being very funny, extremely dark, and quite insightful into the way toxic masculinity works.

Initially, it’s rather easy to dismiss Sensei as idiotically spouting nonsense because he may not be quite as insightful as he believes. However, as the film shifts into darker territory, it’s clear that the nonsense is intentional, accurately reflecting his warped understanding of the world. It doesn’t come as a shock that Sensei is in much greater control than any of his students realize as they fail to process that, in addition to judging which of his students are inherently worthwhile, he has created the entire system of values itself. Of course establishing the world as a violent and dangerous place, then positioning yourself as the teacher who can help people become tough enough to survive it will prove an effective strategy. It’s more or less the first lesson of Intro to Cult Leadership.

But, to the observer, the unbreakable rules of toxic masculinity are quickly unraveled. Sensei discusses how Anna, as a woman, is inherently unsuited to karate, yet her supposedly natural maternal instinct makes her the best instructor for the children’s classes. Less than 200 years ago, most teachers were men, so perhaps the idea that a specific gender makes anyone more or less suited to a certain job is nonsense. And Sensei’s insistence that Anna isn’t the right candidate for a black belt shifts the blame to her, rather than exploring the ways the system has been set up to undermine her accomplishments (to say nothing of his own personal bias). Speaking of Anna, there is absolutely no romantic story line with her, praise the lord. It’s refreshing that, as the only female character, Anna is decidedly not there as a love interest.

The ending itself is somehow both very disturbing and quite heartwarming. Ultimately, Casey does have to speak the language of toxic masculinity to defeat it–but will he embrace it as a belief system or use it as a tool for a different purpose?

Would my blog wife bow respectfully to this one or aim a foot punch and fist kick its way? Find out in her review here!