2021 Oscar Reviews: Promising Young Woman

For the past several years, I’ve attempted to watch as many Oscar-nominated films as possible, and for the past two years I have written reviews of each film and posted them to this blog. Alas, I always run out of time and cannot see everything. This year’ ceremony has been delayed and the nominees are yet to be announced, giving me a chance to get an oxymoronic late jump-start on this year’s anticipated nominees. Today we cover…

Promising Young Woman

[5 nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actress (Carey Mulligan), and Best Film Editing]

Huh. Well, that was a bit of a miss. I’m frankly really surprised by the buzz around this one. I mean, I enjoyed the movie just fine, but… Oscars? I’m just failing to see it. Which is disappointing, because I was really, really excited for this film and was really looking forward to loving it.

Let’s start with what the movie does right. It’s a great revenge thriller. The always-fabulous Carrie Mulligan stars as Cassie, a Feminist Count of Monte Cristo, reappearing years later to cruelly avenge all of the people involved in a terrible act years ago. The film packs a legit amazing cast to give it street cred: Alfred Molina, Molly Shannon, Clancy Brown, Jennifer Coolidge, and Laverne Cox, to name a few. Allison Brie was especially perfect, as always, in her role as Madison. A cast this serious (Carrie Mulligan!!!) to me hints at a serious movie. Perhaps an Oscar-worthy movie? But… I dunno, nobody’s giving out Oscars to revenge-thrillers Taken or The Equalizer, even with heavy-hitting Oscar winners like Liam Neeson and Denzel Washington at the helm. So what makes this one better or different?

Promising Young Woman highlights rape culture in a way that, on paper, is more real than the treatment we typically see in movies. We’ve seen plenty of movies where rape is used as a device to justify a male partner’s rage and revenge, basically ignoring everything that really happens when someone is raped. The dismissal, the isolation, the re-victimization. Here, yes, our heroine goes after the rapist himself, but she also goes after the enablers: the entire system that allows these crimes to happen in the first place. At the risk of giving away spoilers, Cassie goes after them psychologically, not just violently. Murdering someone doesn’t fix the damage of rape; that’s not an eye for an eye. Cassie makes her victims feel eternal fear. And she’s proactive about staving off likely future offenders. Date-rapists who minimize women’s experiences, as movies have for so long used sexual harassment and assault as a punchline. Young male comic actors (Bo Burnham, Adam Brody, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Chris Lowell, Sam Richardson, and Max Greenfield) round out the cast, and writer-director Emerald Fennel instructed them to ham it up as if they were each starring in their own bro comedy, where ogling a woman’s breasts or passing her around when she’s passed out has for decades been played up for laughs. The movie itself is in this way dishing out some revenge on its own medium’s support for rape culture.

Well that all sounds great! And indeed, on paper, it is. And yet…

It just doesn’t work as a high-brow commentary. I think this basically comes down to the writing. The story is too contrived. The dialogue too on the nose. Everything is super spelled out. Our opening scene is a good example. A group of super gross dudes are having a super sexist conversation, victim-blame a drunk woman, cheer on as one of them approaches her, etc. It’s not the scene itself that is necessary unrealistic; it’s how cartoonishly evil and obvious the guys are all being. How overtly sexist they are. How this seems to be all that they are. Whereas the movie’s trailer also begins with this scene, and does a far more effective job of presenting it in just 30 seconds. The scene is fine, but the writing needs a thorough polish.

This is true all throughout the script. To demonstrate that our protagonist has put her life on hold since the initial rape, we meet her parents at the breakfast table as they present her with a suitcase for her 30th birthday. The mom asks why her daughter doesn’t realize it’s her birthday. She then launches into a long speech asking her what is wrong with her and why she hasn’t moved on with her life for the past 8 years and why she hasn’t left yet. Cut to Cassie at work, telling her friend/boss “This suitcase is a blatant symbol of my parents telling me to get out of the house. Because I am 30 and still live at home. I have been living at home since the rape because I am not moving on with my life. That is what is happening here. Wait, is anyone still not understanding what happened in the last scene, and what we were supposed to learn from it? Here, let me just tell you directly one more time with my words.” Okay that’s not the exact quote, but that’s pretty much what happened. Any 1 or 2 elements would have been fine, but they just kept going with the spelling-out. Pretty much the whole movie was like this. She meets an old med school classmate who asks why she dropped out. “You were the best student. You had your entire life ahead of you. You were very very smart and very promising and you stopped early and dropped out for some reason. But you really were smart and were going to be a doctor and now you are not for some reason.” Yeah, dude, we get it. Quit hitting us over the head with it already. One character tells her straight-up “You need to stop doing this. You need to move on with your life.”

Other elements didn’t quite work for me. Little stuff like: Why is she so smart when both of her parents are so painfully stupid? Why does she fall for a guy who makes a mess in a drug store as if this is quirky fun when really it’s just destructive and immature? Why is everyone talking about something soooooo long ago from childhood that they can’t remember it, when we’re only talking about 8 years ago when they were all old enough to be in med school? Why doesn’t her boyfriend require any sort of explanation when she stands him up with zero excuse? Where/how is she finding her accomplices? Plus a bunch of detailed questions I can’t reveal here without some major spoilers. None of these examples were big enough for me to not enjoy this thriller as a thriller. But they are big enough for me to not see it as a serious awards contender.

I have several more comments, most of them positive, but unfortunately they would all contain spoilers. Let’s just say the movie, being a successful thriller, has plenty of plot twists and turns, and I thoroughly enjoyed most of them. A couple of these are your standard-issue thriller twists, but a few of them are unique given the feminist nature of this film. I’m totally onboard with all of these twists themselves, though, again, had some problems with the execution.

In the end, I liked this movie. There was sooooo much potential here to make a truly awesome buzzworthy flick. But alas, it just didn’t elevate to the level I think is required to be an Oscar contender. Even Mulligan, who nailed her leading role, wasn’t provided with a meaty-enough script to warrant a nomination. We’ll see if the academy agrees with me.

NOTE: I may update this review once the nominations get announced.

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