Some have called Promising Young Woman a revenge film, but that description seems too simplistic for a story that unpacks layers upon layers of trauma, grief, rage, sadness, thwarted ambition, and a real desire to heal despite all of it. The truth is, there’s never been a movie quite like it. Like a handsome stranger who smiles across the bar, Emerald Fennell’s feature directorial debut lures you in with gorgeous aesthetics and snappy song cues, concealing the rotten core within. It’s a visceral, vicious, but oh-so-delicious look at the forces that suppress women’s potential, leaving us tap-dancing on a balance beam suspended hundreds of miles in the air, hoping we’ll be able to reach the other side unscathed. But what if we just took the plunge?
That’s precisely what the film’s titular woman, Cassie (Carey Mulligan), does after a traumatic event forces her out of medical school despite her brilliant prospects. Now 30, her days are spent working in an Instagram-worthy coffee shop, where she mostly ignores the customers, reads a book, and wiles away the hours. But at night, Cassie comes alive with a twisted purpose. She puts on a full face of makeup, the shortest skirt she can find, and heads to a bar, where she pretends to be too drunk to stand until a man offers to take her home. If he makes a move while believing her to be incapacitated, she confronts him, her jarring sobriety more powerful than any physical altercation.
Promising Young Woman sits atop a foundation of longstanding tropes, some of which are so ingrained that we no longer even think to question them. Fennell plays with genre conventions and tropes to destabilize the audience, dismantling cultural archetypes before our very eyes, so that by the very end, the whole thing comes crashing down.
This companion viewing guide unpacks some of the movie’s most striking elements — and yes, that includes the “Stars Are Blind” scene.
Warning: This story contains mild spoilers for Promising Young Woman, available on VOD January 15.1 of 6
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An Education (2009)Directed by:
Carrie Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina, Rosamund Pike, Dominic CooperStreaming on: Amazon Prime Video
As Vox recently pointed out in a review
, more than a decade before starring as Cassie, Mulligan memorably portrayed another promising young woman: Jenny Mellor, a high school senior with an eye towards Oxford who is groomed by an older man (Sarsgaard) and starts to question what she really wants from life. Scherfig turns a lens on all the ways young women are gaslit into thinking their true value lies in their physical body, all while constantly being told that they should keep reaching for more. Bonus: You’ll get to see Molina and Mulligan spar against each other once again, this time as father and daughter.
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Sixteen Candles (1984)Directed by:
Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, Michael SchoefflingStreaming on: iTunesPromising Young Woman
doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The movie builds on accepted tropes from popular culture, poking and prodding at them until they reveal their true face. “The incidents in this movie are in every romantic comedy, every TV show — we laugh at them,” Fennell told Variety in December
This includes John Hughes’ teen rom-com classic, which features a subplot about a girl being passed around from guy to guy while passed out drunk
. Far from acting as an indictment of rape culture, the moment is explicitely played for laughs, glossed over as a way to free love interest Jack Ryan (Schoeffling) from his existing relationship, so he can be free to woo protagonist Sam Baker (Ringwald).
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Fatal Attraction (1987)Directed by:
Glenn Close, Michael DouglasStreaming on: iTunes
Almost overnight, Lyne’s 1987 psychological thriller became shorthand for a man’s worst nightmare: a woman who can’t let go. Douglas plays Dan Gallagher, a married Manhattan lawyer who begins a steamy affair with Alex Forrest (Close) while his wife is out of town. But when he tries to end things, Alex goes ballistic, resorting to increasingly violent means to keep him. In 2019, Close said she thinks Fatal Attraction is due for a remake
unpacking the nuances and layers of her bunny-boiling villainess. Fennell has essentially done just that. Promising Young Woman
is a pointed response to an accepted (and lauded — Fatal Attraction was nominated for six Academy Awards) cultural myth. Her movie shifts the perspective, and in doing so, reveals an entirely new story.
“In a Fatal Attraction
movie, she's psycho,” Fennell told Refinery29 in December
about Cassie. “[Promising Young Woman
] is playing on all these tropes. We see how it’s not just [about] the action that’s in the movie. It’s the aftermath. It’s how people cover it up. It’s how people rewrite things.”
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This Is Paris (2020)Directed by:
Alexandra DeanStreaming on: YouTube Premium
While the image of Bo Burnham gyrating to Paris Hilton’s 2006 bop
in a drugstore gives me endless and genuine delight, its larger significance is far from frivolous. Fennell specifically used pop songs by women artists that have traditionally been dismissed as silly or shallow to channel rage and sadness. Dean’s documentary about Hilton
takes a similar approach, allowing a cultural figure who has been mocked and derided to tell her own dark tale. Behind the vapid reality career, the sex tape, and silly heiress persona lies real deep-rooted trauma.
The Hunting Ground (2015)Directed by:
Kirby Dick Streaming on: HBO Max
In Promising Young Woman
, Cassie’s trauma stems from watching her best friend spiral into depression and eventually, suicide, after being raped at a college party. Though she reported her assault to the school, her claims were dismissed. Dick’s documentary shines a light on the epidemic of sexual assault on campus
, and the complicated red tape that too often prevents victims from ever getting justice.