In hopes of encouraging students to talk about sexual assault, Focus Features is partnering with the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network to provide free virtual screenings of Promising Young Woman on college campuses.
“Sexual violence can affect not only the survivor, but the people and communities around them,” Heather Drevna, RAINN’s vice president of communications said in a statement. “Promising Young Woman has sparked important conversations about the cultural response to sexual assault, healing, justice and bystander accountability. We thank Focus Features for making Promising Young Woman available to college students, who are at increased risk of sexual violence, to continue this critical dialogue.”
But what kind of “critical dialogue,” exactly, can one have about sexual assault, healing, justice, and bystander accountability when Promising Young Woman is the jumping-off point?
A quick review: The film follows Cassie, played by actress Carey Mulligan, a med-school dropout turned barista, as she avenges the death of her best friend Nina, who died by suicide after being assaulted at a party. Marketing itself as a contemporary feminist take on the classic rape-revenge plot, Promising Young Woman shows Cassie repeatedly feigning excessive drunkenness to bait a creepy man into preying on her before she reveals that she’s actually sober. The denouement arrives—big-time spoilers ahead!!—when she stumbles on an opportunity to seek revenge on her friend’s rapist. Posing as a stripper at his bachelor party, Cassie attempts to tattoo Nina’s name onto her rapist, only to be killed in the process. In the end the rapist is arrested, thanks to a letter Cassie wrote in anticipation of her own death, with instructions for a lawyer to deliver evidence of Nina’s rape to the police.
The film challenges some victim-blaming tropes and points out colleges’ pathetic inadequacy when it comes to dealing with campus assault. But beyond these basic observations, Promising Young Woman is deeply flawed. While countless reviews describe the film as feminist—some critics even going so far as to term it a feminist “lecture” or “polemic”—it seems to me that it has no overarching message at all, let alone a particularly feminist one. “Promising Young Woman feels less cohesive the longer you consider it—like the remnants of a dream escaping your grasp the more you try to recall the details,” Cate Young wrote in her review for Jezebel. While the film gestures at lots of ideas, it doesn’t settle on any definitive interpretation of what transpires over its two-hour run time, even as it oversimplifies some of the nuances of assault. As Young wrote:
At a distance, other parts of the film also start to feel brittle to the touch. Like why ... is every single man who ever approaches her a rapist? Are there no virtuous bartenders either? I’m hardly the one to Not All Men™ a feminist revenge film, but it feels odd and perfunctory that the story doesn’t even make room for the minuscule possibility of a man’s redemption. Additionally, given that the men she goes home with are literally trying to rape her, it’s odd that none of them ever appear to get violent when she reveals the truth. The whole reason her behavior is dangerous to begin with is because of the threat of male violence. So where is the threat? Even the man who kills her only does so because she attacks first.
Though it’s undoubtedly good for college students to have more conversations about consent, it seems like Promising Young Woman has the potential to make such conversations thornier and more ambiguous.