CW: suicide, sexual assault
Written and directed by Emerald Fennell, Promising Young Woman is a genre-bending film that follows Cassie (Carey Mulligan), a 30-year-old med-school dropout whose life was altered by the death of her best friend Nina. A once joyful Nina seemed to change after she was raped by fellow med student Al Monroe (Christopher Lowell), and as a direct result of the trauma, she took her own life. Years later, Cassie still deeply mourns Nina’s death and remains on a quest to seek vengeance for her.
The plot of Promising Young Woman works like a spiral effect, entangling everyone in the mess that one despicable human created—someone who may never even face the consequences himself. While there are other films that cover rape and suicide, there is no other film that so accurately depicts the utterly disturbing reality that victims and those closest to them face.
As a college-educated woman in her mid-twenties myself, this film felt all too real for me. While some may view this film as over-the-top or shocking, I view it more as brutally honest. Just like Cassie, I’ve witnessed a mental health shift in people close to me caused by sexual assault. For many victims, the trauma can lead to major depression, anxiety, PTSD, subtance abuse, eating disorders, sleep disorders, and like Nina, suicide.
One scene that appears the most authentic to me is when Cassie goes to confront the dean of her medical school, Dean Walker (Connie Britton). Upon asking her why she never reported Nina’s case, Dean Walker tells Cassie that there was simply not enough evidence. Cassie later discovers that the incident was caught on camera and sent around to a number of students on campus—proving there was enough evidence, had she taken the time to search for it.
Similar cases of school administrators disregarding sexual assault victims are all too common. In 2018, two former students of University of Maryland, Baltimore County came forward about the dismissal of their cases, which the school had done to lower the crime rate on campus. There have also been cases against college athletes that were dismissed for the sake of schools’ athletics programs. Recently, several cases were brought to light by students at Louisiana State University alleging they’d been sexually assaulted by athletes on the LSU football team.
Continuing on her search for vengeance, Cassie goes to meet Monty (Timothy E. Goodwin), the defense lawyer who represented Al Monroe in Nina’s court case against him. His job as Al’s lawyer was to shame and intimidate Nina, to paint her to the jury as a party girl who “wanted” to have sex with Al. Monty admits to Cassie that he knew he was wrong, but he went through with it anyway until Nina dropped the case. He was later informed about Nina’s suicide and stopped practicing law as a result of the guilt he felt.
While we all know lawyers often defend the rich for the money, they often justify doing so by saying that they are trying to protect the future of the accused, that their life shouldn't be ruined by one bad choice. In Promising Young Woman, the accused, Al, was from a moderately wealthy family and was on track to be a doctor. So was Nina, but she didn’t live long enough to graduate from medical school and begin what could have been a long career of helping others. The issue, however, should not be whether the victim or the accused had a brighter future ahead of them. In my opinion, any victim’s life and well-being are just as valuable as those of the accused and should be seen as such.
At the moment, the highest punishment for sexual assault in the United States is serving a short time in jail, like Brock Turner who served a mere six months for raping a girl at Stanford. In most cases, the predator will not serve any time at all—especially if the accused is white and from an affluent family. The point of getting justice is not simply to punish sexual predators, but also to prevent them from having the opportunity to destroy more lives and understand that even a one-time offense has consequences.
Another realistic component of Promising Young Woman is the presence of quiet bystanders. During another scene in the film, Cassie's former classmate Madison (Alison Brie) reveals that the incident with Nina occured at a party she attended. She was a witness yet still called Nina a liar. Like most millennial parents, Cassie’s parents desperately want her to move out and get over her “issues.” Her father Stanley (Clancy Brown) shows her a bit more compassion than her mother Susan (Jennifer Coolidge), who just wants her to find a man to marry, preferably a doctor. Cassie does ultimately take her mother’s advice and begins dating a pediatric surgeon named Ryan (Bo Burnham), who she attended med school with. They fall in love, only for Cassie to find out that Ryan was in the room where Al assaulted Nina the night it happened and did nothing to help put a stop to it. He also neglected to come forward later on as a witness, making him a part of the problem.
Many of Nina’s classmates held proof of the assault in their hands, yet neglected to help her seek retribution. Many of those witnesses not only failed to condemn the act, but even remained friends with Al knowing what he did. While those who commit these heinous crimes are the peak of the problem, it says a great deal about our society that so many are willing to stand idly by and not condemn the crimes they witness. Nothing is ever going to change if we keep allowing these things to happen before our eyes and continue to abandon victims.
What many critics of Promising Young Woman don’t realize is how much of a luxury it is to see a film like this as a mere piece of art rather than a hyperbolic depiction of the very real lives of victims and their loved ones. Sometimes it’s important to take a step back from the “good” or “bad” discourse and simply ask if the film did its job. The question we should be asking is, did it tell the story victims needed to tell? Did it have the effect on people that was intended?
Promising Young Woman is an important film that captures the vast impact and disturbing reality of sexual assault. Cassie’s character is witty and clever and comes across as a force rather than a victim. While it’s refreshing both in style and plot, the idea behind the film is to capture your attention and force you to think about the issue at hand. The shock value of the film is evidently there to lure you in further. This film may have moments that are uncomfortable to watch, but that only means it’s serving its purpose.
Promising Young Woman is available to rent on Amazon Prime Video.