Review: One of 2020's best, 'Promising Young Woman' leaves a scar

Carey Mulligan stars in Emerald Fennell's stunning debut feature

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

Meet Cassie. She's the sloppy bargoer over there in the corner that looks like she's had a little too much to drink, the one who needs a valiant young man to assume control of the situation and, you know, make sure she gets home OK, wink wink, nudge nudge.

Cassie, as played by a never better Carey Mulligan in an award-worthy turn that will knock you off your feet, is the "Promising Young Woman" of the title in the year's most savage, ice-cold thriller. Writer-director Emerald Fennell's debut feature is a gripping, emotionally violent and unforgiving exploration of modern sexual politics and a harsh reckoning for the #MeToo movement.

Carey Mulligan in "Promising Young Woman."

We first meet Mulligan's Cassie in a crowded bar where she's nearly falling down on the floor after a few too many drinks. Anonymous bro Jerry (Adam Cohen) swoops her up and brings her back to his place, where he puts her to bed and — hey, they're both drunk, right? — starts to get frisky with her. 

But as things progress, Cassie turns the tables on him and snaps back to stone sober consciousness, revealing her drunkenness was just a ruse. The predator has become the prey, and she asks him a question that echoes in his head, and ours: "What are you doing?"

Turns out this is what Cassie does. We learn she's a former med student who dropped out of school after a traumatic sexual assault incident, and she's now hellbent on revenge not only on those responsible but on a culture that turns a blind eye to sexual crimes. Ryan (Bo Burnham) is a former classmate that helps restore her faith in men, but "Promising Young Woman's" idea of a happy ending has little to do with rom-com fantasies.  

Fennell's deceptively bright presentation dazzles with candy colored visuals and a sugary soundtrack that includes Charli XCX, Sky Ferreira, the Spice Girls, an interpolation of Britney Spears's "Toxic" and even a sing-and-dance-along to Paris Hilton's blessed reggae-pop ray of sunshine "Stars are Blind." It makes the gut punch that follows even more devastating.

"Promising Young Woman" is timely, uncomfortable and stokes a conversation that is long overdue. If it makes you squirm then it has done it's job. If you're not squirming, what are you doing? 

'Promising Young Woman'


Rated R: for strong violence including sexual assault, language throughout, some sexual material and drug use

Running time: 111 minutes

In theaters Friday