“Promising Young Woman” (Focus), the feature-length directorial debut by actress Emerald Fennell (Camilla Parker Bowles in “The Crown”) is a bit like an onion. It has many layers and it will make some people cry.
Cassie (Carey Mulligan) is the titular promising young woman; a med school dropout, about to turn 30, who lives at home with her concerned and confused parents Susan (Jennifer Coolidge) and Stanley (Clancy Brown). Her negligible income is derived from being a barista at Make Me Coffee, where she works with Gail (Laverne Cox). Gail is the closest thing Cassie has to a good friend, although she keeps her at arm’s length.
Cassie leads what you might call a double life. Her evenings are spent in her Ohio town’s bars where she appears to be too drunk to be a good judge of the guys with whom she goes home. However, once alone with corporate type Jerry (Adam Brody) or nerdy cokehead Neil (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), she reveals her sobriety, terrifying them in the process, thereby stopping their potential sexual assaults dead in their tracks. Cassie keeps a journal with the names of the various men with whom she’s done her act, utilizing hash marks to keep score, if you will.
But Cassie’s world is about to be seriously rocked. Ryan (Bo Burnham), a former med school classmate who is now a pediatric surgeon, stops into the coffee house for a beverage and recognizes Cassie. He’s shocked to see her there because, as he tells her, she was the most promising among their classmates. They reminisce a bit and Ryan learns that Nina, one of their classmates and Cassie’s best friend since childhood is no longer alive. On the other hand, Cassie discovers that class jerk and sexual predator Al (Chris Lowell) is not only a successful doctor but is also engaged to be married.
Initially reluctant, Cassie begins a relationship with Ryan. This is especially pleasing to her parents who are worried about Cassie, but also ready for her to move out of their house. Their unsubtle 30th birthday gift to her? A suitcase.
As it turns out, the thing at which Cassie is most promising is her revenge plot. This also includes a bizarre lunch meeting with fellow female med school classmate Madison (Alison Brie), as well as a shocking interaction with Dean Walker (Connie Britton), at the medical school where Cassie and Nina were enrolled. However, for every time that Cassie successfully surprises and jolts someone in her path, she may be the one who is the most unprepared for a disturbing revelation involving Ryan.
By the time “Promising Young Woman” reaches its unbelievable, but inevitable, conclusion (be prepared to cheer!), Fennel, who also wrote the screenplay has taken the audience on a ride that runs the gamut of emotions — from laughter to tears. Mulligan, who has been noticeably absent in recent years makes a strong comeback and Burnham makes a delightful romantic lead — the charming scene in the pharmacy is proof of that.
Screen Savor is a weekly column from SFGN’s film critic Gregg Shapiro. Shapiro is an entertainment journalist, whose interviews and reviews run in regional LGBT and mainstream media outlets. Shapiro is the author of seven books including the 2019 chapbooks, Sunshine State and More Poems About Buildings and Food. Shapiro lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida with his husband Rick and their dog Coco.