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
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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'

GRADE: A

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

Running time: 111 minutes

In theaters Friday

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama  

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