PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN (2020)

December 23, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” The protagonist in writer-director Emerald Fennell’s (“Killing Eve”) feature film debut is a woman on a mission to avenge not just what happened to her friend, but also change the mentality of predatory men … one “nice guy” at a time. She is a #MeToo heat-seeking missile.

Carey Mulligan stars as Cassie, and when we first see her, she appears to be nearing blackout mode while drinking alone on a bench inside a bar. Most people have hobbies like crochet or golf. Cassie’s hobby, or maybe mission is a better word, is to lure men, with the appearance of a drunken easy score, and then scare them straight into respecting boundaries. She’s a non-violent vigilante (as opposed to Beatrix Kiddo) for morality and respect towards women.

As the film progresses, we pick up bits about what traumatized her to this extent. It turns out her best friend Nina was victimized by a group of men from their law school class. See, Cassie is the titular ‘promising young woman’ whose career dreams were dashed over what happened to her friend. Now, Cassie works in a coffee shop with a supportive and wise-cracking friend Gail (Laverne Cox, “Orange is the New Black”), who knows nothing of Cassie’s hobby … and neither do Cassie’s parents (Jennifer Coolidge, Clancy Brown) who can’t help but wonder what happened to their bright, ambitious daughter, and why she still lives at home with them.

Cassie’s mission gets momentarily de-railed when former classmate Ryan (an excellent Bo Burnham, THE BIG SICK) pops in to the coffee shop and awkwardly proclaims his long-time distant crush on her. The two are clumsy and believable together, and their relationship has more ups and downs than a pogo stick. For most movies, this would be enough to hold our attention, but not for ambitious filmmaker Fennell who has much more to offer. There is a cleverness to the presentation with four specific segments: a friend who didn’t believe her (Alison Brie), the law school dean who didn’t want to ruin a boy’s future (Connie Britton), a regretful defense attorney who took the money (Alfred Molina), and a bachelor party that gathers those who make up her nightmare.

Ms. Fennell is also an actor (and has a cameo in this one), and it’s clear she has a real feel for putting actors in the best position to maximize a scene. Of course, Ms. Mulligan is an outstanding actor on her own, but the actors benefit from Ms. Fennell’s work. Other supporting work is provided by Adam Brody, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Molly Shannon, Max Greenfield, Chris Lowell, and Sam Richardson. The color palette is similar to an early Tim Burton movie, and in fact, Cassie’s home looks like a museum or possibly a middle-class Liberace setting.

There is a lot going on here, and some of it is quite uncomfortable – and sprinkled with dark humor in unexpected moments. Advice like “move on” and excuses like “we were kids” ring hollow to Cassie, who carries some guilt over what happened to Nina, and remains focused on attacking a system that enables inexcusable behavior. Ms. Mulligan embraces a character who possesses raw nerves and emotions she sometimes hides, while other times flashes in neon. This isn’t about a guy here or there who takes advantage, but rather a faulty system that protects these guys at the expense of victims. The ending is unusual and unexpected, and kudos to an exciting new filmmaker.

In theaters December 25, 2020

watch the trailer


BESIDE STILL WATERS (2013)

November 14, 2014

beside still waters Greetings again from the darkness. Director Chris Lowell co-wrote the story with Mohit Narang, and there is really no other way to describe it than a modern day redux of The Big Chill (1983). If you are familiar with that film from 30+ years ago, you remember the narcissism, strained friendships, and emotional turmoil that were offset by a best-selling soundtrack. Three decades later we witness narcissism run amok and a crumbled version of friendship, this time offset by the guzzling of alcohol.

Daniel (Ryan Eggold, TV’s “The Blacklist“) has organized a reunion of his childhood friends back at the cabin on the lake where they shared many a summer. Daniel’s parents recently died in a car accident, and none of his “friends” showed up for the funeral … hence, the crumbled version of friendship. As they begin arriving at the cabin, we immediately categorize each: Tom (Beck Bennett, “Saturday Night Live“) is the wise-cracking slacker, James (Brett Dalton) is the TV Reality Show celebrity, Martin (Will Brill) and Abby (Erin Drake) are the high school sweethearts stuck in a strained marriage, and Charley (Jessy Hodges) is the free-spirited chick with a lust-filled history. The arrival of Daniel’s old flame Olivia (Britt Lower) is offset by her fiancé Henry (Reid Scott). May the oddballs be ever in your favor.

Sounding like the old man I am quickly becoming, this generation of thirty-somethings left me quite saddened. What made The Big Chill work, was the actual bond that tied the group together. Remember, they all showed up for a funeral … rather than being summoned for skipping one. The original group had charm, personality and was interesting; whereas this group remains focused on their own problems – oblivious to the needs and feelings of others. They find the bottom of a bottle or drugging an adversary to be actual solutions, rather than resorting to the effort involved with intimacy or conversation. Yes, sad I am.

Despite my issues with the possibility of this being an accurate portrayal of this generation, there are plenty of positives with the film. Lovell truly has a photographer’s eye and uses it for much of the camera work … it’s beautifully shot. Also, each member of this ensemble jumps right in to their character and does a superb job (especially Reid Scott). There is also a terrific segment of three conversations edited together that play off each other like some kind of wonderful parlor game. It’s the highlight of the film.

While much of the film plays like a passive-aggressive expose’, the script leaves no room for interpretation or analysis … Daniel actually spells out his true misguided mission. Beginning a movie with references to Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway is often a good start. However, Hemingway’s theory that all generations are lost, doesn’t mean that some aren’t more lost than others. The game of Whisky Slaps works not just as a scene, but also as a metaphor for watching this movie.

watch the trailer: