Promising Young Woman, Emerald Fennell
Photo: Focus Features

Promising Young Screenwriter: On Emerald Fennell’s Perplexing ‘Promising Young Woman’

Emerald Fennell’s thriller Promising Young Woman pushes buttons, but does it deserve the Oscar’s Best Original Screenplay?

Promising Young Woman
Emerald Fennell
Focus Features
25 January 2020

I enjoyed Emerald Fennell‘s 2020 film Promising Young Woman and recommend it as a provocative, entertaining thriller that pushes the viewer’s buttons. I stress my admiration for the film because I’m going to explain how the script manipulates our emotions at the expense of the story making sense. So, some of you may think I’m trashing the film.

I’m not trashing it. A sensible story isn’t all that. The perfect example is Alfred Hitchcock‘s Vertigo. Most US critics missed what made it great in 1958 because they focused too much on what Time Magazine called “a Hitchcock-and-bull story”. Today, the film is justly acclaimed as a masterpiece. The ridiculous story doesn’t matter.

Are we all on the same page? Good. Now that Fennell has won an Academy Award for her script, I want to point out how that script works on three major points. Here comes SPOILERS galore!

Promising Young Woman‘s opening scenes mislead us into suspecting Cassandra (Carey Mulligan) might be a serial killer. Only much later do we learn that, since dropping out of medical school after a Bad Thing, living with her parents, and becoming a snide barista, she habitually pretends to be passed out drunk in dive bars, the better to be groped and near-raped by drunken louts so she can give them a good talking-to.

Because… that’s always a cathartic therapy for trauma? It’s great kicks? And this method teaches cads a valuable lesson? I don’t think so either, but if we’d been told of this pastime earlier, we’d look at her depressive neurotic behavior much more critically rather than with relief. We’d prefer her to be a serial killer.

The second point regards boyfriend Ryan (Bo Burnham), who’s introduced as someone she knew in med school and a friend of the guy who did the Bad Thing. Ryan says they don’t really hang out, but he knows the guy is getting married. We’ll very shortly learn that the Bad Thing was the rape of Cassandra’s BFF, who later committed suicide. This act – wait for it – was committed at a drunken party and witnessed by his friends!

Does this description leave you waiting for the other shoe to drop? I have no way of knowing how many viewers are a good 30- or 40-minutes ahead of Cassandra on this point as Promising Young Woman‘s story does the romantic digression thing, but it does make her appear exceptionally clueless – or, again, so emotionally damaged that she’s not thinking straight, and this is part of her pathology. So far, so ambiguously misdirected.

Okay, now comes the biggie. Cassandra finds some “closure” by punking a female college official into making an apology after the official had tried to explain the presumption of innocence, lack of evidence, the benefit of the doubt, yadda yadda. Our allegedly resourceful, serially pawed heroine is now ready to ride into the sunset with Ryan, so here’s the precisely calibrated moment when the script must drop that other shoe. How does it do so? By a deus ex machina, or perhaps a demon ex machina.

Cassandra’s other college BFF now produces a video of the crime that got “sent to everybody”. Cassandra’s informed (at last), the viewer’s informed (at last), the shoe is dropping, spinning, and wearing taps. Cue the next furious and breathless shift in the plot.

Except, wait. Let’s think about this.

There’s a video? Sent to everybody? Let’s accept that our hermetically sealed Cassandra never heard about it, but what’s everybody else’s excuse? What about everyone on the internet and cable news? Because there’s no way that video wouldn’t get out. And that spells S-M-O-K-I-N-G G-U-N.

We don’t see the video, but whoever made it pointed the camera at something relevant. Even if we imagine it couldn’t secure a conviction in court, what’s on the video would lead to a raft of plea deals and lesser charges and expulsions and whatnot. Unfairly or not, that’s how a university would handle a colossal PR video scandal, not with rhetoric about “he said/she said”. Such is our world.

So, to manipulate the emotions of Cassandra and her audience, Emerald Fennell invents a plot device that nullifies Promising Young Woman‘s premise about injustice. Please note that this can only work if nobody ever mentions the famous video until this moment and if the video only exists to serve this purpose.

This is when Promising Young Woman officially abandons all intentions of common sense. Remember what I said about Vertigo? This is Gavin Elster in the bell tower with his dead wife and no alibi.

As I’ve stated, nobody cares about the logic of Gavin Elster, and I assume most viewers of Fennell’s film don’t care if this story doesn’t hold water. They’re too busy going along for the ride. In both cases, it doesn’t hurt us to be aware of how these things work.

This is why I still believe Fennell made a good film with Promising Young Woman. I congratulate her on her awards and look forward to her future work. Let’s just hope her next film makes sense.