The phrase “I’m a nice guy” echoes through Promising Young Woman like the grating reverb when someone forgets to mute their microphone on Zoom. Actor turned writer-director Emerald Fennell has hit all of the proverbial nails on the head in her much talked about debut feature. Starring Carey Mulligan, and all of TV’s favourite ‘nice guys’, Promising Young Woman has turned your teen heartthrobs into a 2021 reality.
A rejigging of a rape-revenge plot, this film has been both praised and criticised for its stylised portrayal of an extreme, but all too common, part of the female experience. It tells the story of Cassie – enacted with nuance by Carey Mulligan – who is still reeling with grief after an incident in Med School which derailed her life, but had no impact on the men who catalysed it. The story takes us through Cassie’s Shakespearean revenge and finds a real (bitter)sweet spot between dark comedy and tragedy.
At a time of real vulnerability for women, this film hones in on an attitude that will have you ready to tear your television off the wall: filled with the archaic judgements that we always hope will not follow us as years pass, yet they still prevail. An innovative concept that simultaneously shocks and relates, Promising Young Woman is an electric presentation of grief, fury and the power of a woman scorned.
The crafty and ingenious method of casting some of TV’s favourite boys is calculated and I love it. Fennell, along with casting directors Lindsay Graham and Mary Vernieu, chose some classically loveable rogues to play their predatory characters, in an attempt to hammer home the message that anyone can be complicit. Adam Brody, our 00s boyfriend Seth Cohen, instantly creates a feeling of ease on screen. His face is one of nostalgia and comfort, that is until it isn’t.
Just as female actors can be typecast into brackets of genre or of character, Fennell has broken the mould of the nice guy in an effective and bone-chilling way. Flirting between darkness and light with grace and pop music, this film sits in its own genre and it will become the benchmark for others to follow.
Although it is hard to choose a favourite, there is one scene that has been on everyone’s brains featuring one very catchy song. Cassie and her love interest, played by Bo Burnham, dance around the pharmacy to the one and only Paris Hilton’s ‘Stars Are Blind’. A neon pharmacy sign is glowing in the background whilst onlookers get a front-row seat to a rather amusing performance. This is just one blissful moment of lightness that allows you (and Cassie) a minute to forget the true tale of the film, as Burnham and Mulligan lip-sync “I don’t find too many guys that treat me like you do” the layers of the film unravel themselves. It’s like the 2006 anthem was written with this scene in mind: Burnham sings “those other guys they wanna take me for a ride” as if to exclude himself from the narrative and that is what makes this film so pointed.
From Seth to McLovin, the male actors make us question the actions of all men, not just the bad apples. We’re forced to reject their good guy ways in their past congenial roles to be usurped by the film, and the world’s, more sinister reality. That is the crux of it: a scene with the Dean of Cassie’s alma-mater drives the message home when she says, “I have to give them the benefit of the doubt”. Being confronted head-on with this double standard may feel arresting for some, but must we ask who it is that feels unfairly reprimanded by this film?
The culmination of the film’s themes come down to the genius casting of a Kennedy-esque Max Greenfield (best known as New Girl’s Schmidt). One final masterstroke takes his loveable simp persona and plunges it into the darkest recesses of fraternity culture. Using the ultimate boys-being-boys atmosphere to highlight the ubiquity of every man’s nonchalance, and sometimes even encouragement, of sexual violence, the film says ‘Yes, All Men’. Even the nice ones.
Promising Young Woman is out now on Sky Cinema and NOW TV.