Focus Features
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Emerald Fennell
Writer: Emerald Fennell
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Alison Brie, Connie Britton, Adam Brody
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 12/5/20
Opens: December 25, 2020

Promising Young Woman

If your cable TV viewing is restricted to the output of the NFL you may not see how Emerald Fennell’s “Promising Young Woman” should remind moviegoers of a real-life drama involving Mr. Justice Brett Kavanaugh, sworn into the highest judicial office in the land despite some credible evidence accusing him of immoral behavior. Just over two years ago, Blasey Ford, a psychology professor, accused Kavanaugh of having sexually assaulted her when they were in high school. Allegedly, a 15-year-old woman was physically restrained by the 17-year-old Kavanaugh, who tried to pull off her clothes and covered her mouth with his hand when she tried to scream. She escaped. During the Senate hearings, Republicans criticized Blasey Ford for bringing up the accusation so many years later. She may have been secretly believed by some of Kavanaugh’s supporters, who may also have been thinking “boys will be boys,” and “they were just kids in high school.” He was confirmed in a divided Senate vote.

In “Promising Young Woman,” the stakes are similar, but different in that the plot revolves around not boys who will be boys but grown men in medical school. Nina, a med student, was assaulted sexually by male students in the school, most notably by one future doctor now living large, the primary offender. Nina, who is not shown in this film, dropped out of school, hopelessly distraught, while her best friend, Cassandra “Cassie” Thomas (Carey Mulligan), dropped out as well to take care of her. This is not the only aspect of the script that challenges credibility, but given the riveting nature of the entire production, we can overlook a certain absence of pure logic.

Cassie, now thirty years old, still living with her parents (they gifted her on her birthday with a suitcase as a hint), because she cannot make enough money as a lowly barista to be on her own. Of course she has never forgotten her friend Nina, whose victimhood still affects her life eight years later. And she is determined to get revenge on everyone involved in Nina’s sexual assault, including Dean Walker (Connie Britton), director of admissions at the school who covered up for the young man guilty of the rape. During the hearing, Jordan (Alfred Molina) the man’s lawyer, has apparently been covering up for several defendants, but is off the hook with Cassie because he now has remorse. She is to get retribution confronting the guilty men, but on a more global scale, by entrapping bar-hopping gents in general by pretending to be drunk, agreeing to follow them to their apartments and homes, and suddenly “sobering up,” confronting them with their amorality in taking advantage of a drunk. What the plot does not explain is how she believes the men would all back off at this point, retreating in their shame and allowing her to escape unmolested from their domains.

Along with such lapses of logic and dismissals by Cassie of the harm into which she places herself is a police investigation in the concluding scenes, solving a crime as though they were psychics. But let even that pass since the film is embraced by a terrific script from writer-director Emerald Fennell in her freshman narrative feature. (Her short, “Careful How You Go,” is about malevolent women, as though giving balance to the current tale of dirty young men.) Anchoring all most famously is Carey Mulligan in the title role, an actress who can scracely do wrong, whether in the role of the headstrong Victorian woman Bathsheba Everdene in “Far From the Madding Crowd,” Daisy Buchanan in “The Great Gatsby,” or Jennie Mellor as a woman coming of age in “An Education.” The London-born marvel has no problem with an American accent.

I know a lot of men who would shrink under their theater seats while watching this with their girlfriends, but lucky enough the film is being streamed, so they can disappear under their desks. This is Christmas fare for all those who would prefer their Hallmark love stories to turn out as dark comedy.

113 minutes. © 2020 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – A-
Acting – A
Technical – B+
Overall – A-