Love, Friendship, and Vengeance: Reimagining Romance in Promising Young Woman

Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman | art by Tony Stella
illustration by Tony Stella

Please be advised that the following piece discusses the film’s plot in its entirety, including details of the final scenes

Promising Young Woman is a live grenade. You spend the entire runtime wondering not if but when and how it’s going to detonate and, love it or hate it, almost everyone who tiptoes through the harrowing experience of the film will be knocked on their ass when the bomb finally goes off. And I got hit really hard. More than just being leveled by it, the sudden explosion of Promising Young Woman left me in pieces on the floor.

Even still, I loved every hairpin turn of writer/director Emerald Fennell’s feature debut. It won’t be for everyone, but it is completely and specifically for me. The camp. The meticulous, at times whimsical art direction. The needle drops. The tightly buttoned up Alison Brie playing a WASP mean girl. The hard candy shell around Carey Mulligan’s inscrutable, stunning, acerbic, and ultimately tragic anti-heroine. The humiliation of despicable men, and the unmasking of supposed good ones. The revenge of it all.

I expected all that from the trailers—which do sell you a slightly different thriller than the one you actually get—but the marketing manages to feel more like a clever white lie than an outright false bill of goods, much like Mulligan’s Cassie when she’s out playing her nightly round of Entrap The Dormant Sex Pests. I didn’t expect, however, to be so moved by Promising Young Woman. I didn’t expect the love story at the heart of it. And I didn’t expect to find my great ace romance of 2020.

The film follows Cassie, a med school dropout who now lives at home with her parents and idles her days away behind the counter at a coffee shop. The lack of responsibility is the point. After dark, she does her hair and makeup and goes out to bars, performing the role of falling-down-drunk girl to see which man who volunteers to ensure her safe return home, his home, will start putting the moves on her limp body before she snaps into sobriety and puts them on the skewer for being predators. Cassie doesn’t kill them, though. She humiliates for sport, her notebook filling up with a very long list of “good guys” who lost regard for consent when it didn’t suit their desires.

As the story progresses, Cassie accidentally reconnects with the exceedingly tall and endearing Ryan (Bo Burnham) from her med school cohort. He’s a practicing pediatrician now. She’s reluctant to get involved, but his sweet persistence wins her over, and the darling mini-rom-com within the walls of this rape revenge thriller is born. Which brings us to that word, “rape,” a word that’s never used in the movie, but is the catalyst for Cassie retreating away from life and into a side career as a vigilante. 

Cassie set out to become a doctor with Nina, her constant companion and anchor in the world since both of them were small children. Nina was known for liking a good time in college. So, one night at a party, a male classmate decided that was permission enough to rape her when she was too drunk to protest. The rest of the men, classmates and presumably some friends, looked on and laughed. Nina later reported the crime to the school. To local authorities. Lawyers were hired. You know how the rest goes, because we see how it goes in the real world all the time. Her assailant got off, and the lives of these promising young men were kept intact, while Nina was left to fall apart. She quit school. Cassie did too, to take care of her. Overwhelmed by the trauma, (it’s implied) Nina eventually committed suicide.

With her best friend gone, Cassie couldn’t put the shattered pieces of herself back together again. She turned inward and focused on the hate, at least in part as a distraction from the crippling heartbreak of losing her other half. She designed a plan to ruin the man who, in effect, ended Nina’s life that night at the party, and along the way to accomplishing her ultimate goal, why not bruise the lives of as many men of the same stripe as possible? Hollowed out by the death of her best friend, Cassie became a vessel for vengeance. Her own life stopped mattering to her as much as amassing pounds of flesh for Nina.

Thus, we arrive at Promising Young Woman’s central love story, the one between Cassie and Nina. Although these two characters never get to share the screen, they serve as the movie’s bruised and beating heart and make it my best tortured romance of 2020. I’m a queer woman who learned the term “panromantic gray asexual” at age 28. I’m 35 now and to date have never had much interest in sex, while considering it as an abstract possibility with anyone regardless of gender identity (see: panromantic). I develop crushes. I experience attraction. I feel emotionally and bodily drawn to people. I just don’t feel driven to see that attraction through to the conclusion of sex (see: asexual), despite enjoying physical affection and remaining open minded about the fluidity of my desires (see: gray, meaning it’s a little negotiable).

Before you start wondering, though, the answer is yes. I still can and do fall in love. It’s just that the great loves of my life aren’t people I’ve taken to bed. They’re the people I’ve called my best friends, and in the context of movies (or really, in the great wide landscape of mainstream pop culture) that means I don’t really have any love stories that reflect the ones in my life. For ace folks, it’s all about the head canon, because we don’t get one of our own. We so rarely get coming-of-age romances with A-list celebrities that model the all-consuming nature of our friendships—at least not without those friendships eventually descending into psychosexual chaos. 

And hey, psychosexual chaos is one of my favorite genres, it’s just not my life. We’re told platonic connections boil down to being “just friends,” as if those friendships are not the organizing principles around which we build our lives. As if we don’t experience agonizing breakups, as if we’re not “developed” enough to feel desperate devotion to another person. We’re instructed passively through repetition that to be swept away into a sexual partnership denotes maturation, adulthood, self-actualization. We implicitly, therefore, remain in a state of arrested development if we don’t embark on those sexual rites of passage. To be an “adult virgin” is to be the butt of a joke or belittled as something malformed. Movies and TV shows remind us of this over and over and over again.      

So, it’s exceedingly rare to find a tale of one’s true love that feels like it fits me right off the rack. I have my strange little darlings—Thoroughbreds and Tragedy Girls and horror’s greatest tribute to the messy co-dependency of girl friendships, Jennifer’s Body—but while I’ve watched innumerable wounded lovers tear through legions of bad guys to fulfill blood debts (wives for the men, husbands and children for the women) I now have an avenging angel of my very own in Promising Young Woman, one who is as enamored of the best friend in her life as I have felt for my own.

It’s not that we don’t have any stories about women risking it all for their non-romantic partners. In Miss Bala, the heroine infiltrates a criminal organization to rescue her kidnapped friend. In Savage Streets, Linda Blair leads a group of women in taking down the gang that raped her sister and murdered a friend. What’s unique about Promising Young Woman, though, is the vast emotional imprint it gives to Nina’s role in Cassie’s life. 

I’m no Romeo and Juliet romantic who thinks the purest expression of devotion is taking your own life alongside your companion. But in the context of genre film, the stakes are life and death, and the measure of meaning is the lengths you are willing to go weighed against the consequence of losing your life. The hero is the one who risks extreme danger or certain death to fulfill their narrative objective. In rip-roaring movies like John Wick and Death Wish and Peppermint and other getting-even blood baths, it’s to avenge the love of your life.

That risk brings us to Promising Young Woman’s terrible and beautiful conclusion. Cassie has made more of an effort with Ryan than seemingly anything in her life since losing Nina, but thanks to another former classmate (Brie), she comes into possession of a video from the night of the rape. Cassie knew that Ryan wasn’t the one who assaulted her friend, but she learns that he watched it happen and did nothing at all to stop it. Feeling that familiar, malignant rage surface once more, Cassie breaks up with Ryan and sets the final piece of her plan into motion. The man who did rape Nina, Al (Chris Lowell), is having a bachelor party, which Cassie crashes in the guise of a naughty nurse.

Unrecognized at first, she takes Al upstairs for some private time with the groom, restraining him on the bed and then finally revealing herself. She cooly presses Al to admit what he did to Nina all those years ago, demanding an allocution as he weeps but refuses to take responsibility. The tension in the scene multiplies the force of gravity pressing on your body, making you want to curl yourself into the tiniest possible ball. At the same time, the white hot rage builds as Al cowers and deflects. The more he weeps and dodges accountability, the more it becomes a need to watch him bleed for his sins. 

Then in the middle of it all, Cassie softens as she lovingly describes the Nina of her memories and the way he destroyed her, then destroyed them both. The blast radius around this kind of violence is never limited to just one person, after all. “Even when she was 4 years old, she was fully formed from day one. Same face. Same walk,” Cassie explains, her cadence that of someone reminiscing about a lost lover. “I was just in awe of her. I couldn’t believe she wanted to be my friend. She didn’t give a fuck what anyone else thought apart from me, ‘cause she was just…Nina. And then she wasn’t. Suddenly she was something else. She was yours.”

Then, just as you feel the mighty catharsis of a rape-revenge movie approaching, everything crashes down. As she’s about to start carving Nina’s name all over his body, Al manages to free himself enough to attack Cassie. He forces a pillow over her face and presses all his weight down until Cassie stops fighting back. She stops moving at all. Her body goes limp. Cassie is dead, and not “Surprise bitch! I bet you thought you’d seen the last of me” dead. As in, actually and completely dead.  

Watching this sucked the air from my body. I felt sick and betrayed by Fennell. I couldn’t imagine a way back after murdering the woman whose life I had become so invested in, and whose pain had already been so great. But the movie doesn’t end there. Al convinces one of his buddies to help him dispose of Cassie. His wedding is later that day, and there’s no reason for another life to be ruined just because he killed a woman at his bachelor party. So, with the body of his inconvenience burning in a clearing somewhere, we enter the set up for the ceremony, which Ryan is attending. During the reception, he receives a text. From Cassie. 

“You didn’t think this was the end, did you?”

Police suddenly pour into the millennial-chic outdoor wedding. Cassie left behind evidence of Nina’s rape, as well as tips about her own likely death, with a lawyer who could see her mission through. He arrives with the cops. She’d timed the message for Ryan to send, because Cassie knew what could happen (indeed, what was likely to happen) when she went to confront Al. The men, in the end, were exactly what she expected them to be — nothing more. As her killer is marched off in handcuffs, we cut to the pile of ashes where Cassie’s body used to be. All that remains is half a heart necklace inscribed with the name “Nina.” Ryan receives a final series of texts: 

“Enjoy the wedding” 

“Cassie & Nina”

It took all the way until that very last second, but that’s when Promising Young Woman won me back and became the other half of my own metaphorical heart necklace. I would have liked for Cassie to live and find hope and purpose. But in ending her story this way, Fennell cemented Nina as that most Romantic of figures. The best friend was sealed in wax as the “significant other.” In the grand tradition of love stories across cinema and literature, Nina becomes the soulmate that Cassie would walk into oblivion for. 

It’s a priority of placement in Cassie’s life that the viewer should have picked out before the end, of course—the way Cassie adoringly recounts memories of her friend, with all that affection and wonder still undiminished by tragedy or time; the photos of them together that decorate her bedroom mirror, which she still says goodnight to before turning out the lights; and, you know, the fact that her entire life is built around exorcising the trauma of Nina’s death. The love Cassie feels acts like a whetstone for the blade of anger she can never put down. We even see a brief but devastating scene with Nina’s mom (Molly Shannon) in which they reflect on better times. It’s a sweet moment. Cassie sits on a porch like a kid while she sips from a juicebox, but it ends bitterly, with Nina’s mom beseeching Cassie to move on for the sake of everyone including herself. 

Cassie can’t move on, though. Losing the other half of her heart left a wound that couldn’t heal, and because she lives in a suspense movie, that means being willing to trade her life for the chance to drop the hammer of justice down hard. Along with being a damn entertaining ride, this understanding of the vital intimacy between women has the added delight of making Promising Young Woman feel so gorgeously, confrontationally female. It’s the latest entry into the growing cadre of neo-exploitation films, made mostly by women, that are retraining the gaze of rape-revenge movies and delicately weaving the chemistry-altering power of sexual violence together with the primal thrill of Women Getting Even rampages that are as stylish as they are poignant. Turns out if you’re an empathetic enough filmmaker, you can give viewers their medicine and entertain them with vice all in one story. 

We are at last seeing films populate this challenging subgenre—new entries like The Nightingale, Revenge, MFA, Elle, The Perfection, and Cold Hell—that consistently feel like fine art by way of the grindhouse, instead of strictly sticky red light district specials. (Those I Spit On Your Grave-esque options are a good time, too, of course, but it’s nice to have a more balanced movie diet.) Add Promising Young Woman to that list, and I get to indulge in my favorite category of movies that cater to my most basic instincts while weeping over the most accurately affecting platonic love story of my horror loving ace life. 

Upon leaving the theater after Promising Young Woman, I had to walk around the block twice just to stop the emotional spins. When you get so used to the way you care for people being defined as “the absence of,” seeing a story that validates you as present and full and screaming with feeling is too overwhelming in the moment. The end of Cassie crushed me, but the affirmation of Cassie and Nina as a One True Pairing made me literally lightheaded with joy.

Whether or not Emerald Fennell designed her feature debut as an asexual romance (and I truly expect she did not!), the wonderful part about art is that once it arrives in the hands of patrons it belongs to us all. I’m always searching for the love stories I can make mine as an ace person. All queers are creative geniuses when it comes to carving out space for ourselves in other people’s stories, but I didn’t even have to look far or deep into Promising Young Woman to find a modified avatar. I got a full heroine, played by a tremendous actress giving the performance of her career, whose aching love for her best friend felt as elemental as my own.

I don’t want all my icons to be tragic. I don’t want all the love stories I relate to, to earn their badge of validity through harrowing loss and death. Cinema history is a veritable morgue of women who had to die for their stories to “matter,” and I hope my next Cassie gets to live in love instead of dying for it. But for now, for today, Promising Young Woman is my love story of record—the best love story of 2020. It’s nice to finally be seen.