TW: Sexual assault
“Nothing in Cassie’s life is what it appears to be—she’s wickedly smart, tantalizingly cunning, and she’s living a secret double life by night. Now, an unexpected encounter is about to give Cassie a chance to right the wrongs from the past.”
This is the description of the newly released film, Promising Young Woman. I watched this film with my roommates this past weekend. I went into it knowing almost nothing about the film—I hadn’t even watched the trailer. I just knew that Bo Burnham was in it, and I’d heard him talk about it on a podcast, so I wanted to watch.
Even though I went into this film having absolutely no expectations, I still found myself sitting, mouth agape, at the end of the film, completely gripped by what I had just experienced.
In this review, I’m going to discuss some major themes of the movie. I feel that the ending is critical to discuss when talking about this movie, so there will be spoilers in this review—with the major ending spoilers coming towards the end of the review.
This film centers around Cassie, a 30-year-old med-school dropout who lives with her parents. We discover, in bits and pieces, that she dropped out after her friend Nina was raped by a classmate and died—presumably by suicide. In the present, we see Cassie going to bars and clubs, pretending to be drunk, getting men to take her home to see if they will take advantage of her, and then calling them out and scaring them shitless when she reveals that she is actually completely sober.
Throughout the film, Cassie revisits key players in the situation that took place with Nina, putting them in situations to give them a taste of their own medicine, so to speak. She appears to want to make them experience the feelings that she and Nina felt during that extremely difficult time.
She also meets a man named Ryan, who it turns out went to her medical school as well, and knows some of the people involved in the situation, albeit claiming to not like them anymore. Throughout the film, we watch Cassie and Ryan’s relationship evolve.
The obvious bad guy
The name Al Monroe, who sexually assaulted Nina, is brought up often throughout this film. I start with him because he is the obvious bad guy, being the perpetrator. Despite this, we do not see him in the film until the very end. The film spends most of the time exploring the many other people involved and I believe that is to showcase that when a sexual assault occurs, it never happens in a vacuum—there are always a host of people that are complicit, whether directly, or indirectly.
The so-called “nice guy”
Ryan, played by Bo Burnham, is who I’d refer to as the so-called nice guy. After we watch several instances of men attempting to take advantage of “drunk” Cassie, it is easy to feel a soft spot for Ryan, who pursues Cassie and begins a romance with her. In reality, this shows that the bar is in hell. Ryan appears to care about Cassie’s boundaries, so in contrast to others, he seems like a saint.
In the latter half of the movie, however, it is revealed that Ryan was present at the scene of the crime and was incriminated via a video that was taken. When confronted by Cassie, he is most terrified of losing his job as a doctor and begs for forgiveness without even uttering any type of apology. This is very much a “Take a Bow” by Rihanna moment, “Don’t tell me you’re sorry cuz you’re not…baby when I know you’re only sorry you got caught”.
I think this character actually was the most unsettling for me because I’ve seen him many times in my life. After we know he’s actually a pretty self-involved, seedy dude, we can look back and see a lot of little red flags that had actually popped up along the way. For example, on the first date, when he’s strolling with Cassie, he just so happens to lead her to his apartment, acting surprised they ended up there and asks if she’d like to come in, even though Cassie was reluctant to go out with him in the first place. This exact scenario has happened to me before—by a guy who claimed he was an “intersectional feminist.” In my experience, however, I actually did agree to go inside with him so he could “grab his coat,” assuming he was being honest about his intentions with me. Spoiler alert: he was not.
The most upsetting part about Burnham’s character is that he had so many chances to redeem himself. He could have prodded Cassie when she visually recoiled at the mention of Al Monroe’s name to see what was wrong. He could have had a moment of reckoning, reflection, apology, and maybe even redemption if he had truly apologized when Cassie confronted him. He could have told the truth about Cassie’s whereabouts at the end of the film (more on that later), but he told an outright lie to protect his rapist friend. This just goes to show that the people you would expect to stand up for what is right can surprise you—so disappointing, but not at all fictional.
The complicit women
A major, often under-discussed reason that rape culture runs so rampant in our society is because of the women who are complicit—more specifically, the women who stand by and do nothing, so as not to fall from the good graces of the men in their life. We see this play out in the character of Madison McPhee, who dismissed Nina’s accusation against Al as “drunken regret,” and stopped being friends with Cassie and Nina after the assault.
Cassie gets lunch with Madison, who gets wasted. Cassie then orchestrates a scenario where Madison wakes up in a hotel room with a man (who, unbeknownst to her, did not actually touch her). Madison switches gears quickly, calling Cassie in a panic, asking if Cassie knows what happened—when the tables are turned and she believes she may be in Nina’s position, suddenly she cares.
Similarly, Cassie talks to the school Dean, Elizabeth Walker, who sat on the accusation and did absolutely nothing. The Dean doesn’t even remember the situation when questioned by Cassie. Only when Cassie makes her believe that the Dean’s daughter is in a room of college boys drinking, does the Dean reluctantly admit that she should have listened to Nina and done something about it. Whether she actually learns her lesson or not is unknown.
The movie takes a sharp left turn once Cassie watches the video of the assault and discovers that Ryan was there. She threatens to leak the video unless he tells her the whereabouts of Al Monroe’s bachelor party, which he does, more so to protect his own reputation.
Cassie shows up disguised as a stripper, drugs all the men so they pass out, and handcuffs Al to the bed. She slowly reveals who she is, and it becomes clear she has come to inflict some sort of revenge on Al, who panics and ends up smothering her.
I was in complete denial that she was actually dead. I was fully expecting her to pop back up in a “Gotcha!” moment- but no, she was really dead. This is confirmed when Al and his friend burn her body. We’re left with a disgusting taste in our mouth—feeling devastated, but not surprised that in the end, there was no justice, and the rapist got away with another horrendous crime.
But the movie doesn’t end there. It’s revealed that Cassie had set up a contingency plan—she mailed the tape to the lawyer who was the only one who’d expressed deep remorse, and the cops ambush Al at his wedding and arrest him.
The ending felt like a tiny droplet of justice, but I still did not leave feeling satisfied at all. Ultimately, Cassie had to die for any semblance of justice to be served—making it so she wasn’t even alive to see it.
There are many ways to interpret this film and its ending, but my takeaway is quite bleak: the culture that creates and reinforces rape culture is so pervasive. That it is so hard for women to be believed. That there are so many people along the way that silence those who have been sexually assaulted, or who stand by and do nothing. That being sexually assaulted is something that steals from you in so many ways that can never, ever be righted, even if some form of justice is served.
The storytelling, acting, costume and set design, music, and dark humor made this film quite the experience. It didn’t read like any sort of deep commentary while I was watching it because I was so caught up in the storyline. But after it all came together, I was hit with the impact of the message.
I’m very curious to see what other takeaways from this film are, as I think many people will have different experiences. I would especially like to honor the experiences and opinions of those who have experienced sexual assault. This film deals with heavy subject matter and may be difficult for some to watch. I will be recommending this movie to friends, but I will always include a trigger warning and I hope you do too!
All I know is that this is a movie that will stick with me for a long time. I hope that in the future I can look back at this movie as a relic of a time when rape culture was the norm, and be glad that things have changed for the better. Only time will tell.