Promising Young Woman opens with a Charli XCX needle-drop. As the singer's 2017 hit 'Boys' plays, the camera stays put on the dancefloor of an unnamed club, focusing on shots of men's crotches swiveling around and pumping the air in time to the song, a novel reversal of how women are often the ones objectified in nightclub settings. Over the next hour and 53 minutes, writer-director Emerald Fennell's film reveals itself to be full of these little subversions. Its protagonist Cassie Thomas (Carey Mulligan), a medical school dropout, might be framed against a mural resembling a halo, but she's more of an avenging angel than a cherubic one.
Every night, Cassie frequents dim nightclubs such as this one, stumbling and slurring her words until a kindly (always male) stranger offers to take her home. When he's inevitably revealed to have nefarious intentions instead, she drops the act, revealing herself to be stone-cold sober and frightening him enough that he promises to never repeat the charade with another woman. The casting of the film's Nice Guys™ (with hidden rapey ambitions) is significant — they include Christopher Mintz-Plasse from Superbad, Adam Brody from The O.C. and Max Greenfield from New Girl, romantic and comedic heroes we've been conditioned to root for, aspire to be and aspire to be with. The whiplash in seeing them play against type is jarring enough that it hammers home Fennell's point, that women can't afford to let their guard down even for a second. It also adds a fascinating layer of subtext, that for some men, the relentless pursuit of a woman makes them the protagonist of a romantic comedy. What they don't take into account is that the women in this scenario are the protagonists of a stalker drama.
Cassie's nightly jaunts are lent context by a trauma that occurred in her past, an event that Fennell uses to deftly illustrate not just the entitlement of men who commit crimes of sexual assault and harassment, but the complicity of entire systems that cushion them against any repercussions, further enabling their behavior. Even the film's title reads as a reference to the 2016 Brock Turner case, in which the Stanford student convicted of sexual assault and intent to rape was referred to as a "promising young man" by various media outlets.
Promising Young Woman, however, isn't a routine rape-revenge fantasy like Coralie Fargeat's Revenge (2017). Fennell understands that even in a post Me Too world, the chances of survivors finding justice via the legal system are slim, even less so if they decide to take matters into their own hands. For all Cassie's midnight bravado, the rest of her life is hollow. She's lost the ambition to become a doctor, still lives with her parents and isn't sure whether she can trust the one man in her life whose affections seem genuine. Promising Young Woman stays with these moments, a grim reminder of painful realities that positions every other rape-revenge fantasy as just that — a fantasy.