Promising Young Woman

by Michael Young | May 7, 2021
6 min read
Promising Young Woman movie poster
Source: Focus Films

Editor’s Note: Michael Young, who debuted in these pages with critiques of all five of the 2020 Oscar-nominated feature-length documentaries, will continue to review “movies with a conscience” for the Sun as they become available through non-theatrical distribution channels. “Nomadland” may have taken the 2020 Oscar for Best Picture, but the also-ran movie discussed here is perhaps the more intriguing film. The Academy seems to have acknowledged that fact by awarding “Promising Young Woman” a 2020 Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

 The first scene Emerald Fennell, the director and writer of “Promising Young Woman, imagined when drafting her screenplay was of a drunken young woman, sprawled on a bed. She is having difficulty keeping her head up while a man is attempting to remove her panties. Slurring her words, the woman asks: “What are you doing?” The man is unfazed.

A few moments later, with a sure voice and a stone-cold sober tone, she asks again: “What are you doing?” This time, the man is completely taken aback. His victim, it turns out, had never been drunk. Having been caught and thwarted from committing his intended assault, he hasn’t the faintest idea of what to do or say.

This scene opens “Promising Young Woman,” one the most intriguing thrillers I have seen in a long time. But this movie it is much more layered than that. Genre-shifting from crime mystery to romantic comedy to revenge story, it offers up, in the end, a biting and incisive commentary on the culture of male privilege that enables and excuses sexual assault.

Yes, I’m going to go there. . . . This is a movie that men, especially, need to see—because it does such a terrific job of exposing the series of false assumptions that men use to justify their callous and often criminal sexual pursuits. The argument, so often made, is that men, intent on satisfying their primal urges, never really understand that a woman didn’t give consent. They tell themselves that the woman never said “no,” or that “no” really meant “maybe.”

The charade begins, as the movies does, when a “promising young man” suggest to a woman at a bar who has obviously had too many drinks that they leave together. But instead of finding her an Uber, he offers to escort her home—that’s the right thing, right? Curiously, they don’t end up at her home, but at his place, where he suggests that she come up for one last drink.

Cassie in bar
In pretending to be drunk in public to lure predators, Cassandra Thomas proves to be as convincing an actress as Carey Mulligan, who plays the role of avenging angel. Source: Focus Films

Some version of this scene plays out every single Friday and Saturday night, around the world. The most common rapes aren’t the violent kind committed by a stranger. They’re acquaintance rapes, such as befell Nina, the best friend of Cassandra Thomas (Carey Mulligan), the cunning heroine of “Promising Young Woman.” Exacting retribution for this crime and its fatal impact drives the initially inexplicable actions of Nina’s avenging angel, Cassie.

Yet the movie is genuinely fun! Emerald Fennell is an unknown to me, mostly, I guess, because I don’t watch much TV. Apparently, her most famous acting role is as Camilla Parker Bowles in the Netflix original series “The Crown.” She has also written several episodes of “Killing Eve,” a TV series considered something of a precursor to this movie. This is Fennell’s debut as a director/writer of a feature film, and she has scored a knockout in bringing to the genre of rape/revenge movies a feminist perspective that is needed, refreshing and entertaining.

“Promising Young Woman” is rated R, but that is due to strong language, maybe some drug usage and one extremely disturbing scene. There is some blood—or is that ketchup from a hot dog?—but the violence is not in your face. Rather than splashed against the camera lens, it is left to imagination, stirred by Carrie’s meticulous recording of red marks in a diary.

Sections of the film have a feeling of bubblegum innocence, attributable in part to the color palette of many of the sets and costumes, which is like that of a clown—reds, yes, but also pinks, blues and greens. The music choices are near-perfect, especially the female pop culture anthems like Paris Hilton’s “Stars are Blind,” lip-synced by Carrie and her new boyfriend; and Britney Spear’s ‘Toxic,” orchestrated in an effectively predictive way, late in the movie.

The movie’s tonal shifts are as agile as they are surprising. The unsettling opening makes us struggle to understand Cassie’s mysterious motivations. As her targets become more obviously inept, we find ourselves laughing with Cassie, the sophisticated comic. The middle sequence of the film evolves into a romantic comedy, suggesting that Cassie might be able to overcome her darkest feelings and find happiness. And, then, Fennell (and editor Frederic Thoravel) move to the other end of the emotional spectrum by exposing the movie’s underlying identity as a twisted thriller. Now we’re on the edge of our seats, unwilling to hit pause for popcorn. And unable to stop thinking about the movie’s unexpected ending and message for days afterwards.

And how ‘bout the character, Cassie! Carey Mulligan is not exactly a world-famous actress. She has played several roles admirably: Jenny Mellor in “An Education” (for which she received a 2009 Oscar nomination for Best Actress); Daisy Buchanan in “The Great Gatsby” (2013); and Maud Watts in “Suffragette” (2015). But her performances have always been somewhat underappreciated. Until this one . . . .

I’ve read that some critics have suggested that Margot Robbie would have been a better choice for Cassie, but they are dead wrong. This is not a “front-and-center” role. Instead, it required an actress capable of projecting incredible restraint and intellect—Mulligan fit the bill perfectly. When one of her marks whined, “It’s every man’s worst nightmare, getting accused of something like that,” Mulligan, as Cassandra, replied, cooly: “Can you guess what every woman’s worst nightmare is?” The intelligence, pain and determination reflected on her face was just so clear.

Mulligan received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for her performance, but lost to Frances McDormand in “Nomadland.” Writer/director Fennell took home the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay—deservedly so. Women will love her movie’s theme of empowerment. Men, well, if you don’t get it, then I suspect you are part of the problem. I give “Promising Young Women” 4.5 stars.

“Promising Young Woman” is available on Netflix DVD and to rent on Amazon Prime Video, YouTube, Apple TV, Google Play and Vudu.


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Understanding New Mexico's proposed new social studies standards for K-12 students

“The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.”
—National Council for the Social Studies 

Reader Michael L. Hayes of Las Cruces commented: What impresses me is that both the proposed standards and some of the criticisms of them are equally grotesque. I make this bold statement on the basis of my experience as a peripatetic high school and college English teacher for 45 years in many states with many students differing in race, religion, gender and socioeconomic background, and as a civic activist (PTA) in public education (My career, however, was as an independent consultant mainly in defense, energy and the environment.)

The proposed social studies standards are conceptually and instructionally flawed. For starters, a “performance standard” is not a standard at all; it is a task. Asking someone to explain something is not unlike asking someone to water the lawn. Nothing measures the performance, but without a measure, there is no standard. The teacher’s subjective judgment will be all that matters, and almost anything will count as satisfying a “performance standard,” even just trying. Students will be left to wonder “what is on the teacher’s mind?” or “have I sucked up enough.”

Four other quick criticisms of the performance standards. One, they are nearly unintelligible because they are written in jargon. PED’s use of jargon in a document intended for the public is worrisome. Bureaucrats often use jargon to confuse or conceal something uninformed, wrong or unworthy. As a result, most parents, some school board members and more than a few teachers do not understand them.

Two, the performance standards are so vague that they fail to define the education which teachers are supposed to teach, students are supposed to learn, and parents are supposed to understand. PED does not define words like “explain” or “describe” so that teachers can apply “standards” consistently and fairly. The standards do not indicate what teachers are supposed to know in order to teach or specify what students are supposed to learn. Supervisors cannot know whether teachers are teaching social studies well or poorly. The standards are so vague that the public, especially parents or guardians, cannot know the content of public education.

Three, many performance standards are simply unrealistic, especially at grade level. Under “Ethnic, Cultural and Identity Performance Standards”; then under “Diversity and Identity”; then under “Kindergarten,” one such standard is: “Identify how their family does things both the same as and different from how other people do things.” Do six-year-olds know how other people do things? Do they know whether these things are relevant to diversity and identity? Or another standard: “Describe their family history, culture, and past to current contributions of people in their main identity groups.” (A proficient writer would have hyphenated the compound adjective to avoid confusing the reader.) Do six-year-olds know so much about these things in relation to their “identity group”? Since teachers obviously do not teach them about these other people and have not taught them about these groups, why are these and similar items in the curriculum; or do teachers assign them to go home and collect this information?

Point four follows from “three”; some information relevant to some performance measures requires a disclosure of personal or family matters. The younger the students, the easier it is for teachers to invade their privacy and not only their privacy, but also the privacy of their parents or guardians, or neighbors, who may never be aware of these disclosures or not become aware of them until afterward. PED has no right to design a curriculum which requires teachers to ask students for information about themselves, parents or guardians, or neighbors, or puts teachers on the spot if the disclosures reveal criminal conduct. (Bill says Jeff’s father plays games in bed with his daughter. Lila says Angelo’s mother gives herself shots in the arm.) Since teacher-student communications have no legal protection to ensure privacy, those disclosures may become public accidentally or deliberately. The effect of these proposal standards is to turn New Mexico schools and teachers into investigative agents of the state and students into little informants or spies.

This PED proposal for social studies standards is a travesty of education despite its appeals to purportedly enlightened principles. It constitutes a clear and present danger to individual liberty and civil liberties. It should be repudiated; its development, investigated; its PED perpetrators, dismissed. No state curriculum should encourage or require the disclosure of private personal information.

I am equally outraged by the comments of some of T or C’s school board members: Christine LaFont and Julianne Stroup, two white Christian women, who belong to one of the larger minorities in America and assume white and Christian privileges. In different terms but for essentially the same reason, both oppose an education which includes lessons about historical events and trends, and social movements and developments, of other minorities. They object to the proposal for the new social studies standards because of its emphasis on individual and group identities not white or Christian. I am not going to reply with specific objections; they are too numerous and too pointed.

Ms. LaFont urges: “It’s better to address what’s similar with all Americans. It’s not good to differentiate.” Ms. Stroup adds: “Our country is not a racist country. We have to teach to respect each other. We have civil rights laws that protect everyone from discrimination. We need to teach civics, love and respect. We need to teach how to be color blind.”

Their desires for unity and homogeneity, and for mutual respect, are a contradiction and an impossibility. Aside from a shared citizenship, which implies acceptance of the Constitution, the rule of law and equality under the law, little else defines Americans. We are additionally defined by our race, religion, national origin, etc. So mutual respect requires individuals to respect others different from themselves. Disrespect desires blacks, Jews or Palestinians to assimilate or to suppress or conceal racial, religious or national origin aspects of their identity. The only people who want erasure of nonwhite, non-Christian, non-American origin aspects of identity are bigots. Ms. LaFont and Ms. Stroud want standards which, by stressing similarities and eliding differences, desire the erasure of such aspects. What they want will result in a social studies curriculum that enables white, Christian, native-born children to grow up to be bigots and all others to be their victims. This would be the academic equivalent of ethnic cleansing.


This postmortem of a case involving a 75-year-old women who went missing from her home in Hillsboro last September sheds light on the bounds of law enforcement’s capacity to respond, especially in large rural jurisdictions such as Sierra County, and underscores the critical role the public, as well as concerned family and friends, can play in assisting a missing person’s search.

Reader Jane Debrott of Hillsboro commented: Thank you for your article on the tragic loss of Betsey. I am a resident of Hillsboro, a friend of Rick and Betsey, and a member of H.E.L.P. The thing that most distresses me now, is the emphasis on Rick’s mis-naming of the color of their car. I fear that this fact will cause Rick to feel that if he had only gotten the facts right, Betsey may have been rescued before it was too late. The incident was a series of unavoidable events, out of everyone’s control, and we will never know what place the correct color of her car may have had in the outcome. It breaks my heart to think that Rick has had one more thing added to his “what ifs” concerning this incident.

Diana Tittle responded: Dear Jane, the Sun undertook this investigation at the request of a Hillsboro resident concerned about the town’s inability to mount a prompt, coordinated response to the disappearance of a neighbor. From the beginning, I shared your concern about how our findings might affect Betsy’s family and friends. After I completed my research and began writing, I weighed each detail I eventually chose to include against my desire to cause no pain and the public’s right to know about the strengths and limitations of law enforcement’s response and the public’s need to know about how to be of meaningful assistance.

There was information I withheld about the state police investigation and the recovery. But I decided to include the issue of the car’s color because the individuals who spotted Betsy’s car emphasized how its color had been key to their identification of it as the vehicle described in Betsy’s Silver Alert. Because the misinformation was corrected within a couple of hours, I also included in this story the following editorial comment meant to put the error in perspective: “The fact that law enforcement throughout the state was on the lookout in the crucial early hours after Betsy’s disappearance for an elderly woman driving a “light blue” instead of a “silver” Accord would, in retrospect, likely not have changed the outcome of the search” [emphasis added].

I would also point to the story’s overarching conclusion about the inadvisability of assigning blame for what happened: “In this case, a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances, many of them beyond human control, hindered the search that it would fall to Hamilton’s department to lead.”

It is my hope that any pain caused by my reporting will eventually be outweighed by its contribution to a better community understanding of what it will take in the future to mount a successful missing person’s search in rural Sierra County.

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