Disrupting the ‘Nice Guy’ in Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman (2020)

*film and article contains references to sexual assault*

I’ve gone back and forth, undecided about how to start this article. Did I enjoy Promising Young Woman? Yes. Did I think it was one of the cleverest films I’ve ever watched? Yes. Do I now want to be best friends with Emerald Fennell? Absolutely. So, why was I at such a loss of words at where to begin? I realised, from having so much to say and so many thoughts, I couldn’t put any of them into words. Fennell’s directorial debut is funny yet scary, clever yet bonkers and I was left feeling slightly shocked. I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Fennell explained that she wanted to make something which was accessible to everyone; something which was “enjoyable and appealing for everyone to see”. She has achieved this goal whilst raising awareness of very important topics. 

Promising Young Woman was released at the Sundance Film Festival on 25 January 2020 and in cinemas on December 2020, recieving much critical acclaim and box office success. It went on to win best original screenplay at the 93rd Academy Awards and was nominated in several other categories. 

For those who haven’t watched it, Promising Young Woman tells the story of 30-year-old Cassie Thomas (Carrey Mulligan). Once a medical student, she now lives with her parents and works in a coffee shop. Years earlier, her best friend Nina was raped, and Cassie wants revenge. In order to catch men out, Cassie pretends to be black out drunk and proceeds to wait for a ‘nice guy’ to help her out. They usually take her back to their house and then they try to take advantage of her before she reveals the fact that she is actually sober. Naturally, when they realise they’ve been caught out, they accuse her of being “crazy”. Perhaps, they should ponder the fact that their behaviour is actually crazy.  However, what Cassie really wants, is to get revenge against those who wronged Nina and when she bumps into a former classmate (Bo Burnham), she has a way in. Through a variety of different tactics, she begins to teach her former classmates a lesson. 

It is apparent throughout Promising Young Woman that these men are the supposed nice guys: the paediatric surgeon or the one who judges his friends for the way they talk about women. Fennell made the decision to cast familiar faces such as Adam Brody, Max Greenfield and Sam Richardson, actors we associate with being the ‘nice guy’, which was not only a clever choice, but a very powerful one too. It leaves the viewer questioning who they can trust if not the supposed nice guy? The casting of Bo Burnham as Ryan Cooper was also successful. In many ways Ryan ticks the boxes of being a nice guy, but in reality, he’s allowed his friends to behave very badly and he turns a blind eye, making him complicit and not so nice after all. 

Fennell’s choice of soundtrack is also interesting. She explains how “pop music, often female-led pop music, is a bit like nail polish and a bit like wearing pink; it’s kind of an indication that you’re not a serious person”. Yet, as we know, Promising Young Woman is far from a chick-flick. Despite that, she combines these elements which are associated with rom-coms with aspects of the thriller genre and I think this combination keeps the viewer on their toes, whilst also emphasising the key ideas of the film. 

My favourite scene occurs when Cassie and Ryan are dancing in the drugstore to Paris Hilton. I’ll hold my hands up and admit, I didn’t realise Paris Hilton had a song, but it’s an interesting choice. When I think of Paris Hilton, I think of pink juicy couture tracksuits and when I picture Promising Young Woman in my head, I see pastel colours and lots of pink. Yet, you know there is a dark side, to the film and to Ryan’s character, and that contrast is very apparent. 

So, if you take anything from this article, it’s that you need to watch Promising Young Women and that Emerald Fennell is a very, very clever director. I can’t think of another film which has left me with so many questions and thoughts and, surely that’s a sign of success. 

Maggie John

Featured Image Source: Still via Youtube // PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN – Official Trailer [HD] – This Christmas // Focus Features

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