New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

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New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

‘Promising Young Woman’ review: an introspective glance into female trauma

Emerald Fenner’s “Promising Young Woman” unravels the day-to-day trauma of living life as a woman under a patriarchal system.
Deborah Alalade
Promising Young Woman is a new film by Emerald Fenner. Starring Carey Mulligan as Cassandra Thomas, the film takes a dive into the grief and hurt caused by the patriarchy. (Staff Illustration by Debbie Alalade)

Spoiler Alert: contains spoilers for large parts of the movie. Content warnings include implications of rape, sexual assault, drug use, on-screen gore, murder and suicide.

Cassandra Thomas, affectionately known as Cassie to the few friends she has, is a moonlighter.

During the day, she works at a coffee shop, making ends meet as a medical school dropout. At night, she pretends to get blackout drunk and tricks men into taking her home. Once they’ve gone far enough, she drops the ruse, which scares the living daylights out of them.

If you’re looking for a whip-smart thriller-comedy, Emerald Fenner’s “Promising Young Woman” might be up your alley. If you’re looking for a fun escapist film where the female lead murders men in the name of revenge … not so much.

“Promising Young Woman” shows its bloody and vicious side through a pastel color-coded scheme that seems to veil the entire movie under a facade of feminine innocence. It’s a hard pill to swallow, and grim at times, reminding us that life hardly ever cedes victory to those who deserve it — or revenge to those who deserve it most.

At its core, the movie is about grief, hurt and the abuse that the patriarchy inflicts on women on a daily basis. It’s not about a girl running around killing guys like the trailers make it out to be. It’s far more realistic and, in turn, saddening to see play out. 

As we veer deeper into the film, we see both the cracks in the narrative and the protagonist. She’s hardly a confident woman under all that bravado. Cassie’s motive turns out to be a dead friend of hers — Nina, who was raped at a party Cassie didn’t attend, and seems to have died by suicide as a result — in contrast to what the audience may believe at first. Her reason for holding such rage is not her own assault, but her own survivor’s guilt and boiling hatred.

She lives in her parents’ home, works a job she has no passion for and is deeply traumatized by her past. She didn’t stop it in time — she wasn’t there for her best friend, and she tries to spare other women by threatening as many men as she can. 

When an old classmate of hers, Ryan Cooper (Bo Burnam), walks into the spotlight, everything changes. As the two begin to date, Cassie discovers that he’s still in contact with Al Monroe, the man who raped Nina, and the implied reason she died by suicide. A simple attempt at justice that turns into a revenge plan. Cassie does get her revenge, but loses a lot along the way. 

In the end, “Promising Young Woman,” above all else, is a story about loss, and what happens when we lose our loved ones to an unjust system that has had its roots in our society for eons. The film’s initial premise may be misleading, but it remains a fast-paced and wittily scripted watch, balancing humor and somber themes with deftness. 

We go from Cassie bashing a man’s car in with a dead look to her and Ryan joyously dancing along to the radio pharmacy just as quickly, but none of it feels sudden. Every shot is meticulously planned out, with few filler moments in between, in contrast to the somber, brutally realistic core of the story  — which shows that as long as patriarchy still stands, women and the marginalized will continue to suffer underneath it — making the message of the film harder to stomach.

Email Aliyah Fong at [email protected].

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About the Contributor
Deborah Alalade, Creative Director
Deborah is a senior in Tandon studying Integrated Design & Media and minoring in MCC. From South Florida, she came to New York to become a designer and escape the heat. This semester, when she’s not napping, you can find her in front of computer somewhere in NYC.

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    anonymousApr 18, 2021 at 6:50 pm

    Great article!