This awards season, the film “Promising Young Woman” was released. “Promising Young Woman” is noteworthily directed, written and produced by rising female auteur Emerald Fennell, with acclaimed actress Carrey Mulligan as its star. The film depicts the aftermath of sexual assault, where its intention to process female perspectives for the consumption of a broadening film market allows it to effectively relay important feminist messages to impressionable audiences as a demonstrable product of the #MeToo era. However, the film’s banal plot, two-dimensional characters and resulting lack of audience investment leave the film as just that: a product instead of an art piece, whose promise is unfulfilled.
Cassie Thomas (Mulligan) lives with her parents and works a stale job in a café. The lack of promise in her life is because, in the past, whatever promise she had was spoiled: While studying to become a doctor in medical school, her best friend and co-student Nina becomes the victim of an alcohol-facilitated gang rape. The repercussions of the rape send Nina on a downward spiral. She drops out of medical school, Cassie following suit, and the legal case against the rapist perpetrator proves a failed pursuit. This culminates in Nina’s implicit suicide.
Years later, the lone survivor of the case and all that remains of Nina, Cassie, feigns inebriation in nightclubs to lure and identify random rapists who prey on drunk women. Concurrently, Cassie seeks vengeance not only against Nina’s perpetrator, but also the numerous bystanders. Cassie’s reprisal is enabled by the bystanders that defend their passivity by dispersing various iterations of rape myths.
“I’m not the only one who didn’t believe it. In fact, if you have a reputation for sleeping around then maybe people aren’t gonna believe you when you say something has happened. I mean, it’s crying wolf … I don’t make the rules. Look, when you get that drunk, things happen. Don’t get blackout drunk all the time and then expect people to be on your side when you have sex with someone you didn’t want to,” a former friend of both Cassie and Nina pleads.
Cassie responds, “That’s a shame. I was hoping you’d feel differently by now.”
However, “Promising Young Woman” does little to illustrate why either its in-universe characters or its viewers should “feel differently” about sexual assault. The film prioritizes the representation of the #MeToo movement’s sweeping discourse to the point that it refuses to offer novel complexity to the discourse and thus, sacrifices its narratorial character. As an amalgamation of all conversations regarding sexual assault of recency, it is a product that is relevant yet forgettable.
The characters of “Promising Young Woman” are also forgettable, but contrastingly irrelevant, with their existence limited to their commentary on the plot. The characters are not even functional, as there are less than a handful of instances in which characters outside of the protagonist propel the narrative forward. It should come as no surprise that every single character — including Cassie — is not dynamic, but static. It should be noted that the film’s sole character of color, Gail (Laverne Cox), has no role other than stereotypically sassing Cassie around.
“Promising Young Woman” displays an intended similarity to the 1970s-originated rape and revenge genre that includes titles such as “I Spit on Your Grave” and “The Last House on the Left.” The genre, however, is dated by its portrayal of rape through a fetishistic rather than traumatic lens. By addressing sexual assault with respect after decades of social progression, “Promising Young Woman” attempts to reclaim the historical genre. Given that the 2017 French film “Revenge” already reclaimed the rape and revenge genre years prior with more distinctive storytelling techniques, “Promising Young Woman” is hapless.
This does not mean that “Promising Young Woman” is not relatable. The discussion of common women’s issues naturally endears it to audiences who share the same lived experience. Still, in the face of plot failures, relatability does not imply connection.
With one in every six American women having experienced attempted or completed rape in their lives, “Promising Young Woman” vows itself to a worthy movement — but the film’s movement is motionless with broken promises.