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It’d be nice if more revenge flicks had the smarts of Promising Young Woman.

It’s Raining Men

Cassandra (Carey Mulligan) offers some guilty parties a dose of their own medicine
Cassandra (Carey Mulligan) offers some guilty parties a dose of their own medicine

At the core of this Promising Young Woman’s DNA is black comedy, but there’s a social commentary coursing through its veins that’s driven by a moral compass focused on the hazards of the dating world and a justice system that — at times — is too forgiving in the face of heinous acts.

The titular young woman is Cassandra Thomas (Carey Mulligan, Never Let Me Go), a med school dropout who’s hit the skids. At age 30, she’s living with her parents, working at a coffee shop, dateless and friendless. She’s also struggling mightily to come to terms with the death of her best friend, Nina.

Back in med school, Nina — herself a promising young woman at the top of her class — had a little too much to drink and was subjected to sexual assault and other degrading encounters — all captured on video. With a legal system too shy to mete out a proper level of justice against the lead perpetrator and others — it’d be so unfair to destroy their lives, after all — Nina dropped out, with Cassandra following suit in order to look after her friend.

Nina’s suicide only further derailed Cassie’s future. Obsessed with what happened at school and disgusted by egregious conduct essentially sanctioned in some social circles, Cassie takes a new tact to right some of those wrongs.

Heathers and Cassies

There are so many directions this material could’ve gone. It could’ve been trashy exploitation, I Spit on Your Grave material that only further demeans the lead character. It could’ve gone the route of standard Hollywood schlock, something along the lines of Jason or Michael in a dress.

Instead, thankfully, Promising Young Woman is the creation of writer/director Emerald Fennell, herself a promising young woman with a formidable storytelling talent as a writer of episodes of the series Killing Eve and as an actress, including her recurring role as Camilla Parker Bowles in The Crown. Promising Young Woman marks her remarkable feature directorial debut and there’s every reason to expect her fresh voice to only get louder in the coming years.

Given its black (but true) heart, Promising Young Woman feels a little reminiscent of Heathers, albeit with the blackness of the humor underpinned by a serious dramatic component that helps keep things grounded with an uncommon gravitas.

Cassie goes to unusual lengths to turn the tables, but to say anything more about Cassie’s actions would spoil the surprises and the fun — even in the thick of the challenging top-level subject matter of rape and assault, Promising Young Woman manages to be a fun black comedy with a thriller bent. It’s the kind of entertainment endeavor that also hits the mark while making its point, which is no easy task even in the hands of seasoned Hollywood veterans.

The Hippocratic Oath

The Me Too movement that gained momentum in 2017 was certainly a key catalyst in raising awareness about the flagrant and oddly socially accepted indiscretions of power players, some of the most infamous perps having made their millions in the movie business.

But Promising Young Woman makes some interesting observations about the current state of things. How much of that bad behavior has simply moved underground? In the opening scene, a comment is made about how it’s no longer acceptable to take clients to strip clubs anymore. But to where did that outlet turn?

There’s an uneasy undercurrent flowing through Promising Young Woman that’s driven by the sheer smarts of Fennell setting the drama in the context of a med school program. These are — presumably — all smart people driven by a higher calling (and the promise of a well-heeled life in the long run). Professionally, the students are each expected to be guided by the Hippocratic Oath, and yet base human nature dominates some settings, regardless.

With the audience thrown right into Cassie’s dark situation, the story takes its time to allow Cassie to develop from a seemingly demented sociopath to a sympathetic vigilante whose unique spin on wheels of justice involves brains more than brawn. It’s been a while since a movie’s been able to pull off a conclusion that’s both bittersweet and satisfying in the just desserts vein of sweet revenge, but that’s precisely the type of highwire act Fennell’s pulled off here.