'Promising Young Woman' brings one of 2020's very best movies home

Brad Keefe

As I mentioned last week, the Columbus Film Critics Association named “Promising Young Woman” the best film of 2020.

It should be noted that our association uses weighted voting, so this may reflect more a consensus of positive reactions, but I’m definitely not mad with this outcome. And after a Christmas Day release in theaters only, “Promising Young Woman” is now available for at-home rental.

In the opening scene, we see Cassie (Carey Mulligan) at a somewhat upscale bar, seemingly too drunk to function. A group of obnoxious business bros takes notice, and one (Adam Brody of “OC” fame) goes over to see if she needs help. He’s a “nice guy,” of course.

And, of course, he offers to share a ride app ride home, diverges to his place and pours her an oversize drink before he starts doing things he reasonably can’t think she can consent to. Cassie slurs “What are you doing?” several times. He doesn’t stop. Then she says again, firmly and stone sober, “What are you doing?”

Get news and entertainment delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our daily newsletter

Cassie, 29, lives with her parents and works as a barista, despite her boss (Laverne Cox) actively wondering why she doesn’t have higher aspirations.

She moonlights as a sort of vigilante. “Every week, I go to a club,” she tells another “nice guy" (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who takes her home. “Every week, I act like I’m too drunk to stand. And every [expletive] week, a nice guy like you comes over to see if I’m OK.”

We learn more about the traumatic events that led Cassie to her mission, and a more elaborate plan to right the wrongs.

“Promising Young Woman” has been lauded as timely after the #MeToo movement, but the fact that so many women have stories of sexual violence means this is not a new phenomenon, just an overdue awakening of awareness.

Writer-director Emerald Fennell, who was a showrunner on “Killing Eve,” walks a delicate balance in a film dealing with sexual assault and rape, and not everyone will appreciate the handling.

“Promising Young Woman” is at times a thriller, at times a dark comedy. It’s slick, engaging and entertaining. And it has a soundtrack full of pop bangers. It’s also a tight, twisty piece of storytelling with a hell of a final (technically fourth) act that might lead to debate.

Fennell found just the right lead in Mulligan, a brilliant actor who chooses her projects carefully. When Mulligan makes a movie, it’s always a purposeful decision.

Mulligan’s character isn’t fully fleshed out. Her background and motivation unfold slowly, so Mulligan often is doing a lot of subtle lifting. There’s a meet-cute romance with a young pediatrician (comedian Bo Burnham in great support) that allows Cassie to let down her guard and show a tender side.

But Mulligan can shift gears in a moment, and she gives Cassie more depth in a simple shift of an expression. It’s truly one of the great acting performances of a great career.

As cathartic as the revenge tale is, Fennell takes the audience for a ride. It’s what you get for thinking you knew what was going to happen.

Given the subject matter, "Promising Young Woman" comes with obvious content warnings, but this weekend is a good time to stay home and watch one of the best movies of 2020.

“Promising Young Woman”

In theaters and on VOD

5 stars out of 5

"Promising Young Woman"