Amy McQuaid-England
5 min readJan 24, 2021

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PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN REVIEW

TRIGGER WARNING

Included in this review are triggers and spoilers. It is vital to remember this movie is complicated. There is no way to know how individual survivors will respond. Before I go any further, I honour all those who have experienced trauma. Healing from trauma is not a sprint; it is a marathon, and rest and recovery are needed. This movie may not be the best choice for you at this time, or ever and that is okay.

PHOTO: COURTESY OF FOCUS FEATURES

“Revenge never looked so promising.” These words echoed in my head for an entire year. It was a rallying cry to anyone who has experienced the trauma of sexual assault. Even with the triggers that came with seeing it, the trailer made me feel powerful. After 365 days of waiting, I finally watched “Promising Young Woman” from a cinematic perspective; it is definitely, an Oscar contender. Carey Mulligan’s performance is impeccable, and Emerald Fennell’s directorial debut leaves no one untouched from the overtly clear message. Rape culture is pervasive in our world. Predators are all around us, consent is nuanced, and bystanders are complicit.

I have never been one for surprises, and reading spoilers before watching something that may be too upsetting is a habit. So I armed myself by reading Film Critic Mary Beth McAndrews “On the Disempowerment of Promising Young Woman,” complete with spoilers. Her review as a survivor was something I could trust. McAndrews talked about her lived experience, the flashbacks, and the utter hopelessness this movie triggered. McAndrew astutely analyzed the problematic issues with the main character Cassie: as played by Carey Mulligan. Cassie enacts revenge on behalf of her friend Nina who couldn’t consent to the vigilantism, and the victim, Nina, was absent from the film entirely. There is also no catharsis, which is expected for these types of movies. Instead, with Cassie dying at the hands of Nina’s rapist, it is a sucker punch that may leave many stranded with the trauma and feelings of despair. Knowing this outcome, I mentally prepared myself to watch this film.

After watching it (more than once), it was a gut-wrenching experience. The subject matter is ugly but counteracted with Cassie’s candy-coated hot pink and pastel wardrobe and strategically placed pop music throughout the film. I spent weeks writing this review because I wanted to focus more on how it made me feel and a few scenes that have lingered. Certain things that others may find insignificant have profoundly affected me.

The entire experience of watching Cassie process her grief through rage and self-harm, disguised as revenge, shows the consuming nature of vicarious trauma. Cassie witnessed the aftermath of her best friend Nina’s trauma, long after those who inflicted and contributed to it moved on with their lives. Unfortunately, it is a feeling all too familiar for survivors.

With the repetitive act of Cassie hunting, “Nice Guys,” the opening scenes brought me back to the stark reality of my late teens and early 20s. Then, feeling safe while drinking was never an option. For a lot of us, we learned to become the protective bubble for other women who were in need, even pretending to be old friends with women who were complete strangers to shield them from the forceful advances of predators. It is part of a sacred girl code to watch out and intervene when needed. However, this movie highlights how many people are bystanders who do nothing. The scene where Cassie is in the cab with Jerry (Adam Brody) shows how the cab driver was more concerned about his upholstery than he was concerned with Cassie’s well-being. This is one of many examples of people who turn a blind eye and who could have intervened before the sexual assault happened. There are also characters like Madison (Alison Brie); they are the ones who become complicit in the assault. They do not believe in survivors and leave the world unsafe by not honouring the girl code of community protection. They may not be rapists, but they are rape sympathizers, and they inflict additional trauma with their inaction, judgements and disbelief.

Another pivotal scene was Cassie in the pharmacy with her love interest Ryan (Bo Burnham). Ryan is singing “Stars are Blind” by Paris Hilton. On the surface, it seems innocent enough. However, Fennell deliberately chose that song to make Cassie feel connected to this man and contribute to his good-guy persona. Later in the movie, it is revealed that Ryan was a contributing bystander, caught on video laughing and playing along during Nina’s horrific experience. I was immediately drawn back to this scene. There was an eerie parallel to the real-life experience of Paris Hilton in 2003 when she was a victim of revenge porn. An experience she describes as electronic rape in her documentary, “This is Paris.” Instead of being supported as a survivor of a horrific experience, Hilton was mocked and made fun of on late-night television. Grown men, who I doubt have ever apologized, held her responsible. Hilton was 18 years old and betrayed by someone supposed to love her.

I think Fennell does something very uncomfortable: she displays, for the world to see, how we can all become complicit in rape culture. However, Fennell does something most men who have tackled this subject before have refused to do; she did not show the violent rape of Nina — choosing to use audio and dialogue to get the message across. Even with everything this movie says and does to invoke a response, it did not perpetuate the visual trauma of rape on the audience. To be clear, those scenes are NEVER needed to tell the story. Hopefully, we can continue to move forward with fewer and fewer people finding it acceptable for entertainment. Even Cassie’s violent death is disturbing, but it is not gratuitous. In a jump shot, the morning light comes pouring in, and Al (Chris Lowe) breaks down when his friend, Joe (Max Greenfield), realizes that he killed Cassie. Only referred to as the stripper, her body is laid beside them under a pillow. Seeing those toxic men who objectify rape and traumatize women in this vulnerable embrace made me sick. Al is comforted with words all survivors of sexual violence deserve as Joe holds him and says, “This is not your fault… you did nothing wrong…This is not your fault.” This subversion of empathy for a murderer and rapist, knowing what he had done and what they were about to do, was palpable of reality when men are afforded support and the benefit of the doubt when women are not. Although Al was arrested and Cassie technically got the last word, it was at the cost of her life. A price that no survivor of trauma should ever have to pay to be free from the devasting after-effects of rape.

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