Promising Young Woman

The Sunday Chew #2

Happy Sunday my lovely readers!

First thing’s first, I’ve changed the format of The Sunday Chew slightly. Instead of a completely separate bonus item, I’m going to give a much more in depth review of one of the items that’ll be featured in the following week’s edition of The Seven. It just generally makes more sense to me, and hopefully it does to you as well. (But if not, reply to this email to email me and let’s discuss!)

This week I’m sharing my views on the film Promising Young Woman with you, and I have A LOT to say about it. I haven’t seen anything like it before, and true originality is a hard thing to find in the heavily overstuffed film and television space right now. It’s also beautifully directed, with some brilliant shots and camera angles. The filmmakers made some very intentional choices about how to visually show (and discuss) violence, sex, consent, intimacy and power.

If you haven’t heard of it before, it’s a 2020 film that premiered at Sundance (pre Covid lockdowns) to widespread acclaim. It stars Carey Mulligan as a woman seeking to get justice for her friend who was raped in college. Margot Robbie produced it through her LuckyChap Entertainment production company, and I have honestly never been prouder (I feel a certain pride for all fellow-Australians in the entertainment industry, it’s a whole thing with me 😅).

The name of the film is a play on the way society and the media often describe (white, cisgender, usually hetero) men accused of sexual assault, i.e. as “promising young men” whose futures are being ruined.

“It’s every guy’s worst nightmare, getting accused like that”

“Can you guess what every woman’s worst nightmare is?”

This isn’t the kind of femme fatale, ultra violent revenge film you’ve seen before (like Kill Bill or Teeth, for example). Those films include scenes of graphic violence that feel satisfying (if maybe a little gratuitous), but this film sits in its own subgenre perhaps because it is restrained and it withholds itself from going for these more visceral scenes. Mulligan’s character, Cassie, shows power and strength through her dialogue. Through eye contact. Through her presence. She is unafraid, and stands strong. (There are two exceptions to this, where she does become physically violent, but I won’t detail them lest I ruin the plot for you).

In general with this film, any discomfort is the result of the subject matter discussed, not by seeing or otherwise experiencing on-screen violence. And these discussions about power, consent, culpability and accountability are important, and extremely relatable.

The most violent scene in the film plays right into the idea of the “promising young man”, the man who is defended and upheld at all costs. The man who is said to have made a mistake, or to have done something terrible “by accident”. The violence shown in this scene, towards the end of the film, is necessary because it shows that his decision wasn’t accidental at all. It was long, slow, and intentional. So when he is immediately protected, defended and consoled right after committing this act, the absurdity of his sanctity is even clearer.

These men are not making light mistakes. They are not inflicting violence by accident. They are compromising others bodily autonomy, for their own gratification. They want to do it, and they expect to get away with it. Like this scene depicts, each choice is intentional.

The film’s major takeaway for me was how beautifully it destroyed the idea that a man’s future, his promise, and his character, should be protected. And that anyone who tries to protect it, is a part of this, and they deserve blame. We can not stand by and allow anyone to espouse the idea that male, particularly White straight male, lives matter above over all else. We cannot ever act like their right to continue living life as they did (eating steak, for example, if you’re the rapist Brock Turner) is ever more important than the harm they’ve inflicted on someone else. 

The sociocultural importance of this film is rooted in playing these scenarios out, making the argument against these types of defenses as plain as day. This is the kind of fiction that is critically important out in the real world, where these kinds of disgusting, horrific things happen all the time. I’m sure we all know someone, or heard a story, or been involved in a story in some capacity. I have a friend who had a very similar, life-destroying experience in university, and the entire time I felt sick thinking about how she was, and continues to be, treated (while her attacker continues to thrive out in the world).

The film made me think about why exactly the burden is always placed on the survivor. When people don’t want to be made ‘uncomfortable’ by the situation, or worse they want to make light of it, while the person who was attacked is pressured to swallow it and carry on less they make everyone else feel uncomfortable. The root cause of this discomfort is not the survivor, is the perpetrator of the attack. We need to place the blame squarely where it belongs. The film says pretty clearly, don’t protect the fallacy of “promising young man”, do the hard thing and protect the survivor at all costs.

It cost $20 for us to rent this film because it’s a new release. I’ll be honest, paying that was hard to make that decision given there’s so much wonderful content to stream free (well not free, paid for by other subscriptions) but it was completely 100% worth it.

This film, I think, is mandatory viewing. If you’re worried about being upset or triggered by it… if you are a survivor or know someone who’s been in this situation, I think it just brings to light the power in these situations in an incredibly delicate, well written way without being shock-jockey or violent. It didn’t make me look away, it made me lean in.

Alex and I watched the trailer before viewing the film (because, you know, $20!) and I wish we hadn’t because it spoiled a lot of the plot, as most trailers do. If you trust me and love to be brilliantly surprised - just jump in.

If you’ve seen it, please reply to this email and tell me what you thought because it’s the kind of film that I desperately wanna discuss with other people. If you haven’t seen it yet, try to, and message me all the same because I’d love to hear your thoughts.