There is a scene in Promising Young Woman where a woman walking down a street has been catcalled by a bunch of construction workers.

These bawdy men make suggestive comments about her state of undress. How the events of last night may have led to this walk of shame. It’s something many females have experienced, even while wearing their most presentable outfits.

She stares at them fixedly without comment. Unblinking, as their leers and sordid suggestions turn into panicked frustration with every passing second of her unflinching eye contact.

“Stop it. You can’t take a joke?” they yell defensively as the power dynamics twist.

The real story

Here’s the taste of the no-holds-bar powerful feminist story that is about to unfurl. It is in fact, the second gut punch after the cold open where the same woman, played by actress Carey Mulligan, stuns a guy with her stone-cold soberness in the middle of his unwanted sexual advances.

It was a nice guy who had offered to take her home from a bar but decided instead to take advantage of her implied drunkenness. The look of horror on his face as he realises the truth of his night ahead is pure schadenfreude delight.

Can you expect anything less for a film that is purportedly named after the infamous 2016 Brock Turner sexual assault case? The Stanford University swimmer who was found guilty of raping an unconscious woman was given leniency by a judge who dubbed him a “promising young man” despite his crimes. Sentenced to 6 months in jail, Brock served just 3 months before being let out for good behaviour.

While the court case predates the #MeToo movement, it laid the foundations for what’s to come with its public dissemination on male privilege, consent, and sexual assault. Brock’s father insisted that his son’s punishment was “a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action”. As Chanel Miller, the victim of the case, wrote in her blistering statement that was read aloud in court.

“You knocked down both our towers, I collapsed at the same time you did. If you think I was spared, came out unscathed, that today I ride off into sunset, while you suffer the greatest blow, you are mistaken. Nobody wins.” 

That Chanel is thriving post-assault is a testament to her hard work at overcoming this trauma. Her statement went viral on Buzzfeed, becoming a guiding light for many other survivors to find their voice, and inspiring changes in California state law regarding sexual assault. The cherry on this hard-earned sundae is knowing that the judge was removed shortly after the ruling and Brock remains on the national sex offenders list despite his disgusting efforts to have the sentence overturned.

Which brings us back to Promising Young Woman and why everybody needs to watch this movie. 

Promising Young Woman

Image: Promising Young Woman, imdb.com

Cassie (Mulligan) is a vigilante seeking justice for her college friend, Nina, who is raped in college and never recovers. The revenge thriller by Emerald Fennell is in turn cynical, darkly humorous, a romantic comedy, and a nihilistic view of women in a patriarchal society. To call it a feminist movie is to rankle the many critics who are polarised on its message. But it holds up an undeniable mirror that showcases the all-too-real structures that are implicit in this issue.

There are the nice guys who claim to be an ally but often are the most guilty of abuse behind closed doors, who claim to be an ally but become a full chauvinist pig around their bros and the nice guys who claim to be an ally but shut down when confronted about their convenient misogyny.

It also highlights the women who are part and parcel of this problem. The female dean who claims some version of “promising young man” when confronted about the lack of punishment towards Nina’s rapist. The female classmate who blames Nina’s inebriation and reputation for her sexual assault. Cassie’s mother who wants her college-dropout daughter to just move on and get over it. Even Nina’s mother beseeches her to let it go. 

Cassie’s vengeance 

Image: Promising Young Woman, imdb.com

Cassie is a woman driven by a burning rage for justice for her best friend. It’s an anger familiar to females, one that would have flared brightly during the Brock Turner case. One that exploded as headlines of Sarah Everard’s kidnap and murder while walking home made the news. In the film’s tensest moments, she is every female’s glorious id, diabolical and unapologetic for the wrath displayed.

In Cassie’s fury, unaddressed grief and hurt at losing her best friend is unspoken. She is wrecked with survivor’s guilt for not being by Nina’s side on that night. It’s a forgotten moment for her classmates, a piece of gossip that happened “when I was a kid”. But Cassie’s refusal to progress the way society wants, is her way to atone.

Trauma leaves people broken, and with very few rules about how to fix themselves. Does Cassie put herself in dangerous situations as a way to trap men with a lesson or is it her way of rewriting a crucial moment when she should have been there? Therapy might not be the answer to Cassie’s frustrations. But it would have been a healthier and far more sustainable way of processing. Yet no one holds her hand down that road.

The shocking ending will leave you laughing out loud or aghast at the turn of events. It reads both as a warning sign for revengeful females and a darkly cynical take on the meaning of justice. Either way, it will leave you thinking and talking. And the more we talk about promising young women, the more we might start protecting them and hearing less of their male counterparts.