A group of blokey salesmen in a dive bar. They’re despairing the way in which political correctness is going just too far. Their (presumably few) female co-workers are complaining about them meeting clients in a golf club, because the club bans women. And as for strip bars? That’s now banned, especially after that incident last time.
They spy a very drunk woman on her own. One of them offers to take her home, telling her she can trust him, he’s a nice guy. Before they get to hers he invites her to his flat and plies her with more drink. Just as the situation starts to get a little rapey, she leaps up, obviously a lot less drunk than she was making out. She gives him a good talking to, and asks accusingly if he wants to sleep with her now? He doesn’t.
This opening, familiar to anyone who’s seen the trailer, contains many of the strengths and weaknesses of Promising Young Woman. It is full of righteous anger, boy is It angry. And it is clearly on the right side. But for a revenge drama, it’s the victims of sexual violence who suffer much more than their predatory attackers, who don’t get much more than a ticking off. Maybe this is a subtle statement about continuing injustice in the real world, but it does seem to be pulling its punches.
Every so often, some Roman numerals pop up, apparently showing a new chapter, but in reality, the film is in three parts, each tonally quite different from the others. Part 1 is an extended version of the trailer, introducing us to Cassie whose childhood friend Nina was forced to drop out of medical college – and worse – after a sexual assault which the authorities helped to cover up.
Hence Cassie’s current nocturnal activities. She is on a mission to prove (to whom it’s not clear) that sometimes its the “nice guys” you have to fear the most. As she continues to humiliate the men who offer to “help” her, she comes into contact with a couple of old student colleagues who provide her with more information about the attack on Nina, including a slightly implausible incriminating rape video, which someone happened to leave saved on an old phone.
Part Two moves into RomCom territory and is as such the most bland and dull part of the film. Cassie hooks up with someone who might prove to be an actual Nice Guy. She invites him back to meet her parents, whom he charms, they sing along to Paris Hilton songs in the supermarket. Yes it really is that sickening. Anyway, she finds reason not to trust him any more, so let’s move quickly on.
In the final part, Cassie doles out justice like an Avenging Angel. But does she, really? There is a very neat plot twist at the end, but Cassie’s victory is still about as pyrrhic as you get. This doesn’t entirely matter, as the audience is given an urgently needed lesson on consent, but for a film that is so clear that sexism is systemic, it offers no solution outside the sexist system.
It also has a strange morality about who it wants to punish. As said, when Cassie picks up arseholes at bars, she doesn’t do much more than try to shame them. And when she tracks down a sleazy lawyer who must have defended dozens of sexual aggressors, all he has to do is tell her that he’s awfully sorry for what he did to win her full trust. This is a very Catholic view of transgressions – the only really bad sin is one that you don’t apologise for.
I want Promising Young Woman to be successful. It is on the side of the angels in a medium that has preferred lads “comedies” in which rape is treated at best as one of those misfortunes that occasionally happens, and often as something to be glorified. In contrast, here is a film that is clear that rape and sexual harassment are no laughing matter, and should not be trivialised in film.
So there are all sorts of reasons why you should go and see it. Unfortunately, it’s not that great a film. The shift between different gears is clunky, and there are a few too many plot moves that stretch credibility a little too much. It’s good that it exists, and is very well acted, but hopefully next time round someone will provide a better script.