Written and Directed by Emerald Fennel
By HTP Editorial
It takes a village to commit sexual assault. The perpetrator relies on a host of willing collaborators. He counts on a certain amount of apathy, of disavowal, of active passivity, of convenient amnesia, of notions of entitlement, of ideas about who matters to us and who doesn’t. Oftentimes he can even count on approval. When he weighs the possible cost to himself against the strength of his inclination, he calculates that the risk is well worth it.
Of course, the victim of the assault doesn’t fare so well, and, as we see in Promising Young Woman, such an assault often racks up multiple victims. The title refers to both Cassie and Nina, longtime best friends right on the cusp of launching their adult lives. During a drunken party in med school, a young man rapes Nina while his friends look on and film it.
Cassie, unable to move forward, drops out of school and begins a meticulous process of tracking down everyone who had some involvement—active or otherwise—in perpetrating, facilitating, minimizing or covering up what occurred. And it’s a lot of people.
Promising Young Woman is called a “revenge film”. But, perhaps more accurately, it is a failed revenge film, in that our protagonist does not take control, exact justice and re-empower herself. No one is vindicated, no balance is restored, no one is invited to meditate on the nature of evil or the nature of revenge. How does revenge make us feel, is it meaningful, is it good, is it bad, does it really help anyone? These are the kind of questions that make us feel comfortable because they are familiar—and they are abstract. This film does not permit us to veer off in that direction, it does not let us distance ourselves from our protagonist, from the very real pain and damage unfolding right in front of us. And, accordingly, the viewer does not leave this film feeling good.
Even our most prurient curiosity is quite pointedly not satisfied. We never see the rape video. We never really learn what happened to Nina after her rape. It is implied, but never stated, that she killed herself. At any rate, she is “gone”, both to herself and to everyone around her. And that’s the point. The people who loved her have lost her. The people who did not love her do not know what they have lost. And they don’t care. They have other things on their minds.
“Rape revenge” exists as an actual film genre. More often than not, this genre offers “the best of both worlds.” We are voyeuristic guests with a front row seat to the sexual assault itself, and at the same time heroes, forgiven for this indulgence, because we diligently pursue justice afterwards.
But Promising Young Woman is not centered, as so many “movies about women” are, on men and their needs and concerns. The males in this film seem quite deliberately portrayed as 2-dimensional, a state normally reserved in media only for females. This is unsettling because we are not used to seeing it. It’s not that the men are not important, or in any way less worthy of our attention—or even, ultimately, arguably, our compassion— than the women, but they are needed here to function as the device that helps move this particular narrative forward, in this particular way.
However, “2-dimensional” doesn’t mean that the men are cast as either good guys that women can readily trust or bad guys hell bent on hurting them. We can’t help but feel some sympathy for the shy and awkward guy who brings Cassie home from a bar, believing her to be drunk and therefore malleable. He cannot believe his good luck. And we really like the doctor boyfriend. He is kind, funny, and genuinely appears to care about Cassie. BUT, the awkward guy tells his supposed “prey” that he thought they had developed a real connection. It’s a lie. He doesn’t even know her name. At the same time, the doctor boyfriend, we learn, has a dark secret. And it’s a dealbreaker.
One might argue that Promising Young Woman avoids revisiting the myriad of ways we have already learned to assimilate sexual assault into our collective consciousness, replete with our imagined “solutions” of empowerment, or the sweet promise of revenge, or “social progress”, or the skill of learning how to discern “good men” from “bad men”, or our perpetual—and stupid— bewilderment at its ubiquity.
Instead, this film asks us—finally!— to reframe the problem. It seems like—and it feels like—more of a story about loss on the most vital level, about what we as a society are willing to toss away as “unpromising”, unimportant. It’s a measure of what we can live with, what bargains with the devil that we are willing to make in order to avoid challenging ourselves to be better. It asks the most simple—and therefore most important— questions: Where are we right now, in this specific historical moment in time? How did we get here? How do we feel about it? Is there anything we can do about it? And, perhaps even more urgently, what should women do to help each other survive this madness?