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Promising Young Woman
Credit: Focus Features

You won’t like her when she’s angry. Actually, you may love Cassie (Carey Mulligan), a 30-year-old barista who has made a kind of professional hobby out of unleashing her own brand of justice on men she believes should know better. Better than to sidle up to a girl at bar who’s too drunk to find her phone, and pour more melon Schnapps down her throat; better than to tell her about your terrible unpublished novel for two hours, then shove a hand up her skirt; better than to sexually assault someone she loves, put it all on tape, and get away with it.

Promising Young Woman is the debut feature film from Emerald Fennell, an actress and writer who is the current showrunner of Killing Eve (she also appears as Camilla Parker-Bowles on The Crown) so it’s easy — or maybe just a little bit lazy — to see Woman as part of some extended Eve universe: Another giddy exercise in unhinged sociopathy and high-feminist style.

It is, at least in part, but Cassie is no Villanelle. She’s a lonely girl with long Rapunzel hair who still lives at home, to the exasperation of her worried parents (Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown), and works, barely, at a coffee shop run by an extremely understanding boss (Laverne Cox). Nearly all her free time is consumed with planning her “missions”: takedowns of the men she meets at bars and clubs by playing dress-up and then pretending to be too inebriated to stand. She’s the fake-drunk honey; they’re the predatory bees. If they try to stick their little insect bits where they don’t belong, she teaches them a lesson.

It’s all, we come to learn, for her best friend, Nina, who experienced some kind of traumatic and terribly public sexual assault in medical school and never recovered. She dropped out, so Cassie did too. Now she has all the time she needs to dedicate herself to setting things right in Nina’s name. But when an old classmate named Ryan (Bo Burnham) turns up at the coffee shop one day and shows her that he might actually be one of the good guys, Cassie finally lets in the idea of learning to trust again, and maybe even fall in love.

Will Fennell let it last? That’s a question only the third act can answer, and it does, in a swerve that spins the story in a wildly different direction — one that’s much riskier for the rhythm of the film, but also far more thought-provoking. As satire, Woman‘s first two acts are fun but broad: a winky, wildly stylized slice of girl-powered revenge porn. And Mulligan, who’s always given smart, delicately shaded performances in movies like Far from the Madding Crowd and An Education (she was great in 2018’s underseen Wildlife) is an entirely different animal here: furious, damaged, ferociously funny.

Burnham is phenomenal, too as Ryan, a fully drawn unicorn in a sea of male-privilege cartoons. The tone of Fennel’s script on that subject and many others has a tendency to wobble, more than once, but where takes them — and what it has to say about Cassie’s choices in the end  — feel destined to be debated long after the last outrageous frame. B+

This review was originally published in January 2020 out of the Sundance Film Festival. Promising Young Woman arrives in theaters on Christmas Day.

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