Promising Young Woman: A glitzy, glossy depiction of a rung of Millennial hell

Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman. (Courtesy of Focus Features)

It is in all likelihood an inextricable, incorrigible component of my male toxicity that, after watching Carey Mulligan in a scene from Promising Young Woman, the glitzy, lip-glossy, curse-wrapped-like-a-candy film from Emerald Fennell, I found myself humming the melody from Belle and Sebastian’s “Step Into My Office, Baby”—only, I changed the lyrics to Spit into my cof-fee, baby.

I’ll explain. Carey Mulligan plays Cassandra “Cassie” Thomas, an on-the-cusp-of-her-thirties medical school dropout who now works in a coffee shop and lives at home. Like so many millennials she is, on the surface, a loser.

Her comportment in both locales is rather revealing. She spits into a customer’s coffee (to be fair, it’s in response to his in-jest dare, and just a few week’s later, they’ve begun dating! A modern-day fairy tale, one might say.)

She could give two-fifths of a fuck about this job. Which, to use a millennialism, can we, like, get into the social implications of this? When a young customer approaches the coffee shop counter to ask for a drink, and Cassandra, engrossed in a book, ignores her before grudgingly grabbing her order, is this Cassie’s privilege speaking, which allows her to treat customers with such utter contempt and lack of consequence?

Is it a stab at comedy? Laverne Cox, who plays the shop’s proprietor, and is the closest thing Cassie has to a friend anymore, seems to regard this behavior with the sort of paternal benevolence so often derided these days because of the way it was once reserved for ne’er do well young men. But again, a disclaimer: I’m a man, so I of course have no opinion on anything whatsoever that involves a woman. Her life, her body (of work!)

Back at home, when Cassie sits down to meals with her parents, an uncomfortable air of mistrust hangs over the proceedings. There are, of course, many reasons why a young-ish person would move back in with her parents—this past year has made that clearer than ever—but the point, usually, is to use home as a base from which you can find your feet and get back out into the world.

But Cassie’s parents see no initiative being taken by their daughter to move on with her life, and their exasperation with this stasis grows by the day. She seems to have pressed pause on her life. A daughter her age, still in the home, runs against the natural order of things; you can understand the parents’ rationale in trying to expel her from this environment, hopeful that a kick in the pants might just do the trick.

But what Cassie’s parents don’t know—what no one knows—is that her life is far from lacking in meaning. In fact, it’s overflowing with zealotry. She has become a vigilante, of sorts, taking to night clubs wherein she feigns severe inebriation, waiting for some well-meaning white knight to squire her home, whereupon said knight’s true nature is inevitably revealed when he tries to force himself onto her.

I did have some fun imagining if, instead of coming home to an accommodating butler, Bruce Wayne’s parents had survived and he was forced to fend them off every evening after coming home from fighting Gotham crime? Where do you go at night, Bruce? When are you going to sort out your life?

Her mission is a response to a terrible fate that befell her best friend, Nina, at a party during the two’s time at medical school. The incident’s sordid details are never explicitly revealed, but you can guess at what happened. Cassie was not there, and she feels survivor’s guilt about it.

This may well be one of film’s most potent social critiques. Much like South Park on PC culture, the beta males who feign empathy have simply donned a new form of camouflage in their eternal quest to get in a girl’s pants. Cassie’s lesson is simple: we must change this part of man’s willingness to prey on unwilling sexual partners, with no ramifications. If Cassie must revert to misdirection to get her point across, so be it. The ends justify…well, you know.

Courtesy of Comedy Central

Cassie makes short work of this brigade of betas. So what if she is sacrificing her future in order to set the past to rights? If she does not stand up for righteousness, who will?

The reactions by certain characters in the film to this crusade are among its most interesting, and revealing, moments. When Cassie meets with an old friend from school, she is met with an exasperated sigh. Why don’t you just move on? The past—and, particularly, this sordid part of it—is messy. The people involved know it was wrong. They don’t enjoy having their noses rubbed in it.

But Molly Shannon, who plays Nina’s mother and is the person perhaps most entitled to an opinion on the matter, asks Cassandra to drop it. One thinks of the common trope—though very true—in revenge narratives that nothing is gained by trying to retroactively right a past wrong. It simply reopens the old wound. It only brings pain.

What made this film so fascinating, to me, is that while I found nearly every character abhorrent, the film itself is phenomenal. Promising Young Woman marked my first trip to the cinema in four months, and even in a half-filled forum, it was fun to react to the events on-screen alongside others. A chorus of laughter, or gasps, whatever. It was fun to once more share a dream.

And even if Fennell has quickly been roped into a superhero project, I’m glad I got to enjoy this wholly original concept from her. How often can you say that, these days? In the two weeks following my viewing of Promising Young Woman, I watched The Mauritanian and The Courier. They both followed what has become a rote formula for biographical dramas. While good, I felt no remorse leaving my thoughts about them at the door of the theater. Interesting diversion, no more.

Promising Young Woman had me ruminating for the entirety of my three-mile walk home. For the past year, when so many of our cultural release valves were capped, I was incredibly thankful for that.

I keep coming back around to ways in which I regard Cassandra (interesting Greek mythology reference there) with a wary eye. Here we see a millennial unraveling from her decision to go scorched earth on her surroundings in pursuit of a version of Her Truth. When your quest is destroying every relationship around you, it does become something along the lines of Bruce Wayne’s dilemma in Dark Knight Rises. No one can do this forever. It’s a personal dystopia that reminds me of This Mortal Coil’s brilliant song “I Want to Live.”

I’m rather selfish, and I mean to be unkind; You can’t imagine what it does to me inside.

After watching the film, I rushed home to immerse myself in reactions to it, alongside interviews with Mulligan and Fennell. One that surprised me was Mulligan’s rebuke of a Variety review of the film, way back when it had first been released, pre-pandemic, at Sundance. Mulligan took exception to the freelance movie reviewer’s depiction of her (in what I believe was a specific reference to one outfit she wore on one of her nocturnal escapades), eventually jotting a lengthy screed to that effect. Looking back over the review, I couldn’t find any phrasing that was glaringly objectifying her—the closest, I guess, was an observation that Cassandra wears a certain get-up like “bad drag.”

Anyway.

Variety quickly tacked on a disclaimer to the review. “Variety sincerely apologizes to Carey Mulligan and regrets the insensitive language and insinuation in our review of ‘Promising Young Woman’ that minimized her daring performance.”

It reminded me of Lola Kirke taking the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane to task for an offhand comment in a review of a film of hers. Or Brie Larson saying that she doesn’t want to hear about what white men have to say about her films.

Lane was referring to the appearance of Kirke’s character in the film; something Kirke acknowledged in her clap-back Instagram post. He lavished praise on her actual performance. But no matter. In each of these manufactured kerfuffles, as is the case with pretty much everything that happens online, now, we had a misinterpreted message, which was then used as a rhetorical hammer. You can debate the merits of such a strategy; you cannot argue its efficacy. It riles up both sides, each of whom think they’ve won. If only there were a book that could illuminate this mental condition

Fennell said she wasn’t trying to make a political statement with her film, but Mulligan’s decision to put the writer on blast put it into the political, mainstream maul. Why not contact the writer and ask him about his choice of words? Inform him how you interpreted it, why you took offense, and see if you could release a joint statement, or conduct an interview together, in which you worked out the issue?

It would seem a more constructive tack than the publicity blitz Mulligan unsheathed. Mulligan must have known the outpouring of support she would receive.

From a Variety interview between Fennell and Mulligan

On the one hand, you want to believe Mulligan when she echoes Fennell’s sentiment that there was nothing didactic about the film; it’s business wasn’t in telling people what to think. But in a political, and moral, landscape so deeply fractured, both sides falling ever deeper into these fissures, did they not know that this, like everything else, would fall down one or two neatly drawn lines? One thinks of the “fight” Fennell said broke out between two audience members at the film’s first test screening, which ended in one of the people leaving in disgust.

In the end, that’s what I find most discouraging. Works of art taken by either side of the political aisle and repurposed as a kind of howitzer to fire at the enemy. Any hope of meaning quickly dries up. It’s no wonder the cultural landscape is so parched.

So many of us want to help. I’m struck by something Albert Hammond, Jr. said on Ethan Suplee’s podcast, that so many of us want to learn and want to be able to interact, but we’re scared because we follow the news and we see how easy it is for words to be misconstrued in this age. For the pile-on to commence. For a person to be removed from polite society.

You’d have to think we can do better.

Game of life, with a twist—and shout. Twitter: @alleywhoops

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