Beware, spoilers and possible triggers.
Promise is a powerful thing. We see from childhood through our bright shining college students, brimming with unlimited possibilities. When someone dies young, we mourn the promise unfulfilled. Promising Young Woman, a candy-colored confection with a rotting heart, is filled with promise subverted and futures lost.
The setup: Cassie, the main character, is devastated by the rape and death of her childhood friend Nina. Almost a decade later, she can’t move on and takes revenge on men by reenacting the situation that led to Nina’s rape. By day she works a dead-end job at a coffee shop. By night, she goes out, pretending to be dead drunk. The perfect bait for one of the ‘good guys’ to pick her up. She never consents, and when they have crossed the line, she returns to sobriety, and dark, uncomfortable comedy ensues.
If this were all there was to Promising Young Woman – a repetitive uncomfortable punchline – Emerald Fennell wouldn’t have multiple nominations and wins for best director, best picture, best screenplay. The screenplay alone received 14 nominations and 8 awards so far, including Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards, the BAFAs, and the Writer’s Guild of America, and deserves its accolades for the smart, funny, and tightly woven script.
Fennell’s juxtaposition of Cassie’s life with those of her classmates is a key method to bringing home one of the major themes of the movie that promising young women are less valuable in the eyes of society than promising young men. The harm perpetrated against them is mocked, made a spectacle of, downplayed, or forgotten.
In The Anatomy of Story, John Truby discusses how each character should be defined by how they face the story’s central moral problem. Here, the central moral problem is Nina’s rape and death. Fennell, though, takes us deeper, structuring each character as a version of a path Cassie or Nina could have tread, embodying their future lost.
The central duality is between Cassie and her love interest and former med schoolmate, Ryan. He is Cassie’s mirror opposite. Cassie – unsuccessful, self-destructive, and haunted. Ryan – successful, confident, and carefree. They both share a twisted sense of humor, which brings them together when they meet years after med school. Ryan’s relationship with Cassie is enough to pull her out of her downward spiral and for a moment, it feels as if she will finally be able to put the past behind her and see a future beyond revenge and justice.
Cassie hurts, and she wants those who let Nina down or hurt her to feel that hurt. Fennell uses the character of Madison, a classmate of Cassie and Nina, that could have come forward as a witness but did not, to illustrate several different things at once. First, with her successful, happy, married, just had twins life, Madison shows yet one more possible future lost to Nina. Second, Madison’s embrace of society’s expectations is the opposite of Cassie’s dismissal of them. Yet another echo of the different value society puts on a woman’s future. Each of the characters says it best.
Cassie, on her lack of accomplishment or drive, talking to her boss:
Madison reflecting on her current state to Cassie over lunch:
But Madison wasn’t the good girl, Cassie and Nina were. Madison was the party girl whose friendship with Nina and Cassie didn’t run deep enough for her to stand up for them.
The co-evolving ideas of duality and the subversion of promising futures are reflected and refracted throughout the script. In the two authority figures Cassie confronts, Fennell delineates them by the two-sided coin of memory – one doesn’t remember, the other can’t forget. The Med School Dean is still upholding the status quo and doesn’t remember Nina. She has moved on, something that Cassie’s and Nina’s family both advise Cassie to do. The Lawyer, responsible for derailing the case, remembers Nina too well and can’t forget or sleep. He is as haunted as Cassie is. On another level, The Dean and the Lawyer echo Ryan’s lack of memory of Nina and Cassie’s obsession with her.
At the halfway point, Cassie’s life opens up, and she embraces the possibilities of a life with Ryan. That turning point allows us a glimpse of the Cassie that was – smart, happy, irreverent. In the third acts, ‘all is lost’ moment, Cassie is brutally pulled back into the past, and back on the course of justice and reconing, she had abandoned. In that critical scene, Fennell shows Cassie, devastated, watching a slideshow of images of a young Nina and Cassie flicker across her laptop, interspersed by darkness.
Fennell is very selective in how she reveals Cassie’s relationship with Nina. Rather than flashbacks, we see the past through keepsakes – the BFF split heart with Nina’s name on it she wears around her neck, pictures on Cassie’s bedroom wall, the slideshow on her laptop, and the journal she keeps track of her pursuit of revenge that is secured with a scrunchy.
The final two opposites that Fennell explores, as she moves Cassie to her confrontation with Nina’s rapist, are Al and Nina. Al the devil-may-care, entitled, gregarious with his group of bros in tow epitomizing white male privilege, is held up against Nina’s brilliance, humor, autonomy, and love of her best friend. In the present, Al becomes the representative of all the things Nina would have achieved, career, adventure, and marriage as well as all the men Cassie has baited with her drunken act.
Throughout the movie, Nina is a ghost haunting Cassie, but we, the audience, don’t get a real sense of who Nina was to Cassie until Fennell clarifies the theme of Cassie and Nina’s future lost in the last act. As Cassie confronts Al, Cassie’s feelings for Nina finally spill out:
Cassie reminds Al that the only reason he graduated Magna Cum Laude was that Nina, first in class, and Cassie, second in class, were taken out of play—by him. Earlier, the audience learns this was considered by authorities as he said/she said situation. It was decided they couldn’t put his promising future at risk. At that moment, all that Cassie has lost in her friend, the possibility their lives both held and the callousness of the system that didn’t provide support or justice, comes into terrible, devastating focus.
A great script takes a central moral issue and then uses the characters to illuminate the possible reactions to that issue or moment. The characters that surround Cassie are there to reflect the promise Cassie and Nina embodied. Each, defined by their response to Nina’s rape and death, and then again as illustrations of the future, first Nina and then Cassie, lost.