Once a year, a film comes along that cuts so deeply against the grain that its ingenuity and craftsmanship push movies forward for years to come.

Amidst the backdrop of pandemic-led movie shortages, the stark contrast between the relatively mundane films of 2020 and writer/director Emerald Fennell’s debut feature, an instant hit when it debuted at last year’s Sundance Film Festival on its way to being the “it movie” for cinephiles’ most anticipated list.

With her debut feature that more than lives up to the hype, Fennell creates a sugarcoated, pop fairyland that masks personal trauma behind the walls of an avenging angel-type loner. 

Through neon lights and hyper-realistic social-media worthy imagery, Promising Young Woman exceeds and shatters the expectations of a revenge thriller to become something much more inventive and daring. 

The film follows Cassandra Thomas, a medical school dropout living at home with her parents unable to fully recover from the trauma of a tragic event in her past. In her search for answers, Cassie spends nights out trying to lure men into her trap to teach them a lesson they won’t forget.

Fennell’s silver-tongued screenplay requires actors who can keep the sharp wit of her comedy balanced with the inner emotional nuance and Oscar-nominated actress Carey Mulligan creates a presence on screen that pulls the best from DeNiro in Taxi Driver and the films of Martin Scorsese.

Promising Young Woman will likely be compared to Joker, which is a derisive analogy for the simple fact that Fennell’s film operates on the complete opposite end of the spectrum, both in tone and character. What makes Cassie such a compelling lead character is how her drive for a sense of justice leaves her short-sighted to the world around her and yet acutely aware of how to twist the knife in on her perceived enemies.

Mulligan delivers a career-best performance as Cassie, the titular “promising young woman” whose life turns to disarray after the loss of her best friend Nina. There’s moments where it feels as though Mulligan is floating outside of Cassie’s body as events melt around her, but at times, a twisted sense of calculation and presence washes over Mulligan’s eyes to create the prologue to epic revenge fantasy.

The ensemble cast who give such depth to Cassie’s jaded world is a masterclass in finding the right performer for singular moments when the film needs it most.

Comedian and Eighth Grade writer/director Bo Burnham steps in front of the camera to challenge Cassie into a conventional normalcy, filling the role of sweetheart boyfriend Ryan with far more complexity than he’ll be given at first glance.

Connie Britton blends a reserved confidence that draws audiences in only to flip on a dime as needed for one pivotal scene, only to find herself overshadowed moments later by an incredible supporting turn from an uncredited Alfred Molina as a lawyer Cassie confronts.

The supporting women of the film provide a terrific counterbalance to Mulligan’s calculated mania, especially Alison Brie’s searingly hypocritical work as a former classmate of Cassie’s.

But it’s the litany of smaller roles given to men like Adam Brody, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Max Greenberg – “that guy” actors known for playing adorable, safe good guys – that work so well in Promising Young Woman as audiences take the stereotypes they’ve built up in their heads for these performers and watch as Fennell and Mulligan help twist them into something much darker.

Promising Young Woman wonderfully sidesteps direct confrontation of sexual assault, something a lesser, more conventional prestige drama would linger on. The physicality and violence inherent in these moments are replaced with more raw, lingering emotions that trigger character development and further the plot, solidifying Fennell’s ability to pen a screenplay that will keep audiences on their toes and wanting to restart the film as soon as it’s over. 

Fennell expertly infuses her film with a vast array of needle-drop moments from Britney Spears’ “Toxic” to Juice Newton’s “Angel of the Morning” to a haunting remix of “It’s Raining Men” that set the tone for a distinctly original story. Combined with Anthony Willis’ haunting score changing the mood as needed to keep the audience guessing, Promising Young Woman boast musical moments that will lodge themselves deep in the minds of ardent fans of the thriller.

Hands down a front-runner at the next Film Independent Spirit Awards, Promising Young Woman enters the end-of-year conversation at just the right time to pick up momentum towards Oscar nominations this April. Fennell’s debut feature is quite likely to earn nominations for Best Actress and Best Original Screenplay, with Best Picture and Best Director honors not out of the question.

Promising Young Woman has some of the best cinematic moments in recent memory and ones that shouldn’t be spoiled, making Mulligan’s awards-worthy performance an absolute must see on demand for ardent cinephiles who enjoy a film that will engage and challenge its audience at every turn.

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