‘Promising Young Woman’ shows at DPAC
Gracie Simoncic | Tuesday, September 21, 2021
TW: Rape, Suicide and Trauma
“Promising Young Woman” starts important conversations about how we discuss rape and modern feminism through a genre-bending film. Played by Carey Mulligan, Cassie’s characterized by her irreverent humor and inability to let go of the rape and death of her best friend, Nina. She’s a 30-year-old med school drop-out that still lives at home with her parents. When she’s not being careless about her day job as a barista, she’s at bars, doing her side hustle. Every night, Cassie pretends to be drunk to the point of incoherence. Men at these bars see her as an easy target and pose as a “nice guy.” They usually take her to their place, keep feeding her drinks and try to have sex with her. Never once does she consent to any of this. Just before any penetration can occur, she snaps out of her “drunken” state. The men are always horrified that she’s completely sober, exposing their understanding of their own actions. Not only is Cassie trying to scare these men out of harming women, but she’s also trying to cope with her own trauma of losing Nina by seeking out the types of men who hurt her.
This movie pacing is maintained through multiple plot twists, including the subversion of the “nice guy” trope. Bo Burnham plays Ryan, Cassie’s old med school classmate whom she reconnects with after their coffee shop meet-cute. At first, she’s cautious and tries to avoid him. She’s suffered so much after losing Nina, who was her whole world for so long, that to open herself up to someone else would be too risky. But Ryan isn’t like other guys. He doesn’t pressure her into dates or sex. Not to mention he’s a pediatric surgeon with a quirky sense of humor. They begin to fall in love, and after an adorable montage to “Stars are Blind” by Paris Hilton, Cassie gets lulled into this relationship. Only later do we find out Ryan was one of the men present when Nina was assaulted and did nothing to help her. Through this character development, the film expresses that any man is capable of assault, and we all play a role in rape culture.
This movie does a good job contextualizing rape as a cultural phenomenon. It is not usually some random man jumping out of a bush. In truth, it’s usually someone the survivor knows and occurs in a safe space. Cassie’s ex-classmates are the medium through which the movie shows how society teaches us to think about party culture and sex. The consequences of victim blaming are extremely damaging, as demonstrated by Nina dropping her case against her rapist and eventually killing herself.
However, I think this movie fails at acknowledging women of color and trans women’s experiences with sexual violence. Laverne Cox, one of the most famous and talented trans actors of our age, plays Cassie’s friends and coworker. To not bring up the sexual violence trans individuals face daily is doing a disservice to the themes of this film and to women like Cox.
From an artistic standpoint, this film experiments with elements from multiple film genres seamlessly. When trying to explain this movie to others, one might compare this film to a super spy movie having a baby with a horror film but make it new age feminism. Viewers will be sobered to realize that this plot isn’t unimaginable and the horrors it portrays are very real. This blurring of artistic lines makes this film so significant. Spurred by the discovery of video footage of Nina’s rape, the plot evolves into a revenge saga. Cassie creates a hit list for everyone involved, including the dean of their medical school and the lawyer who defended Nina’s rapist.
Overall, this film succeeds in creating social commentary about sexual assault and the patriarchy. The plot is very unique, and while it feels original, the themes it deals with are far from fiction. The conversations Cassie and Nina’s story start can lead to greater discourse about rape culture and how women experience misogyny differently through the lenses of race, gender and sexual orientation. I would highly recommend this film for the social and creative value it brings to the medium of cinema.