Content warning: This article contains mentions of sexual assault.
The 93rd Academy Awards have now passed, and it’s time to reflect on the state of things. A strangely ramshackle production in Los Angeles’s Union Station, this year marked an austere turn from the pomp and circumstance of past ceremonies. Climate change, racial justice and, of course, COVID-19 were on the speakers’ lips that night. Speeches alluded to representation, to justice, to equality, all in favor of film’s hypothesized position as the harbinger of greater social change. The film industry tells us that this is a unique moment in history, yet that could not be further from the truth.
The Academy is no stranger to making befuddling choices and this year’s example lies within the Best Original Screenplay category. The prize went to Emerald Fennell’s film “Promising Young Woman,” and it’s important to begin by saying that there are a lot of things this film is not. This film is not realistic, but it’s also not fantastical. It is not character-driven, even if it tries to be. “Promising” does not commit to anything strong or affecting, even as it toys with sensitive social issues and, naturally, is worse off for it.
The film follows Cassandra (Carey Mulligan, “The Great Gatsby”), who dropped out of college following her best friend Nina’s suicide after Nina was raped at a college party. Nihilistic, Cassandra is unable to move on from this tragedy and adopts a new purpose as a sort of makeshift avenger of sex crimes.
In one specific scene, Cassandra is taken home by a man looking to have sex with her. Of course, the man thinks she’s drunk, which would mean to the best of his knowledge she can not give consent, but the film treats this crime with no actual weight. The dialogue adds up to a simple back and forth, where the man exclaims, “I’m a nice guy,” and then, “Are you trying to say I’m some sort of predator?” This all culminates in the man stating, “I thought we had a connection,” which is then returned with a terse “Then what’s my name?” and a slew of other questions prodding the man to give her any single piece of information someone would learn from simple small talk.
This is the climax of the scene and it shouldn’t be. We witness the gruesome actions of sexual assault, and the only thing the film gives in retaliation is a small bit of mainstream rhetoric before Cassandra simply leaves. The two characters are not people, rather mouthpieces of the two sides of an argument. The film amounts to an infantilization of an audience who couldn’t possibly handle a more subtle, actually challenging conversation. “Promising” simplifies the issue of sexual assault for the audience at every turn, giving a tour of the most surface-level points of the contemporary feminist rape culture conversation and offers nothing of worth in the way of character development, storyline and, at its most damning, artistic vision.
In a better film, this scene would then become something more farcical, like the cult classic “Jennifer’s Body.” It could have been something with an intentionality that would have given the audience a twisted sense of retribution. Or this could also be treated with the severity that rape in the real world deserves, with actual drama and close care to the emotions of our main character (or Nina, for that matter). But as it hangs uncertainly between the two, it becomes something sickening instead, with little gravity devoted to a serious topic but all of the simulation of such.
As the movie continues, Cassandra blunders her way through actually doing anything positive. With laughably slight punishments for men and prolonged psychological torment for female wrongdoers, she herself plays into these same patriarchal structures she is railing against. But this is her bit, as the film tries to convince us that this is the only way that she or anyone can exact revenge — and it is supremely insulting to the victims of sexual assault.
The ending of the film uses the police as the saviors at the end of the day, finally giving out justice, when in reality it is well known that they are the biggest barrier to due process and that their inaction around sexual assault reports is why the issue has become so heavily politicized. At worst, the film amounts to a mockery of victims themselves. When Cassandra lets would-be date rapists off with an effective slap on the wrist, giving a sober speech at the end of her faux-drunken bit, it is a failed attempt to lay bare their flagrant disrespect of the rules of consent.
Bo Burnham makes an appearance as Ryan, the “nicest guy” of them all, and by virtue even more awkward than the rest. We are forced to witness a character who is perpetually out of place, stumbles over his sentences and contains as much charisma as a nervous dog. This is the leading man with whom Cassandra is supposed to fall in love. Even if this love is upended later in the film, the supposedly strong and wry female lead is forced to have chemistry with a character no different in demeanor from every other man in the story. Every conversation between the two hinges on either “CUT TO: Ryan midway through a quirky anecdote in a cafe” or “CUT TO: the couple lying in bed with some playful post-sex chit chat”; if I had to lay in bed as a man jokingly referred to me as a bitch, consider me following the calls of the eunuch.
This device deprives the audience of a chance to witness the creation of a rapport with its protagonists or antagonists. It creates an unreality that is unsatisfying as the script goes through the motions to get the story to the next point. In “Promising,” characters are not supposed to grow together nor are they supposed to be the focus. Even the basic task of treating each character as if they’ve ever had an individual experience — or even a compelling contradiction to their being — is failed. They are simply a vehicle for the message of the film, a message which is continuously shoddy throughout, with social commentary pulled straight from the widely disseminated Instagram infographic cliché we are all so familiar with. If your writing could be accused of plagiarizing these, then it’s farcical that you would even be able to be nominated for any writing award. This leaves us with what we have, which is a multi-million dollar public service announcement. Unfortunately, “Promising Young Woman,” and films like it (such as this year’s best picture “Nomadland,” or another nominee, “The Trial of the Chicago 7”) lay bare that nuance is a lost art in mainstream cinema. “Promising”’s failure of a script is now proving that it is not the exception but the rule to success.
Daily Arts Writer Vivian Istomin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.