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PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN (2020): Archetypes Not Stereotypes

Emerald Fennell won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for this, the screenplay itself was on the Black List a few years ago, and it struck me as odd as the script itself is one of the more conventional things about the film.


I am currently reading Robert McKee’s ‘Story’, and in that he states, and I am pretty sire I am paraphrasing here, that a good screenplay is about archetypes not stereotypes, and it is how the writer refines and what they do with the archetypes that defines the script.

This is a rape-fantasy revenge film, which means we are already set out for justice in the manner of I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE (either version). But the film doesn’t do the blood we expect. When we see Christopher Mintz-Plasse get threatened, bloodlessly, scared, I felt almost robbed of that interactions potential. Fennell expects us to want us for Carey Mulligan’s Cassie to take violent revenge. And I think that is what is stopping this film from going that extra step.

Cassie is brutally murdered at the end, her body disposed of in the most gruesome fashion, and it felt out of step. For that to feel natural, we should’ve gotten the blood beforehand, the violent expectation. 

The parents of both Cassie and Nina seem to be wanting to move on, with Cassie only staying with the past. I think the film attempts to have a throughline of Millennials being stuck in this eternal purgatory, not wanting to leave the parents house, not wanting to get a proper job, not wanting to settle down. And how that ‘want’ is actually a ‘can not’ as past traumas and elements they cannot control stop them from moving on.

The casting of all the men is pretty spot on, each has their own intertextual baggage. Some viewers will know who Max Greenfield plays in New Girl, or who Chris Powell plays in Veronica Mars. And ultimately, the kind of person Bo Burnham is. This adds extra weight, does quite a bit of the heavy lifting.

The other part of the heavy lifting is Carey Mulligan. Exceptionally strong in this difficult role, and again it is the final part of the film where I ultimately wish the film went that step too far. She could pull it off, and be legitimally scary. 

As a first feature film, the aesthetic and camerawork are very unique. Some of the style choices and songs are a tad bit too much, and overall just take the film down that notch.

I understand that this can be a very difficult film to watch from both perspectives, and I can only speak from that of the point of view of a straight man in his 30s. The past few years has rightfully shifted the focus onto the nature of consent, and what is sexual assault. As Daniel Schloss put it, as a man we have to use our privilege to stop those from doing harm to women. I cannot say for 100% that I have always been that person, and that is the case for a lot of men. PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN, makes this case more obvious, using its own privilege as a ‘mainstream’ film to make this case. For some women, I can see this being a hard watch that will bring some visceral, opposing reactions, and they have every right to feel that way.

I saw what PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN was trying to accomplish, and whilst not being successful all the time, a lot of the parts make for a quite successful whole.

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