‘Promising Young Woman’ and the desire for endings

Rebecca Wanzo a professor and chair of the Department of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies.

Emerald Fennel just won an Oscar for her Promising Young Woman screenplay, which is a powerful meditation on trauma and grief. One of the common challenges sexual violence survivors face is the demand from others that they “get over it.” The range of responses from survivors is wide — something that people also struggle to grasp when they foster beliefs about how a survivor ought to behave — but many are impacted by the trauma of the assault for years. On one level, discomfort with the long-lasting effects of an assault is affected by what sociologist Candace Clark has described as the rules of sympathy — people often lose sympathy if they feel suffering has gone on for too long. Suffering too long is treated as irrational and out of proportion. People expect some injuries will be felt deeply and long — like the death of one’s child. However, people do manage grief and trauma. And many people who do not “get over it” manage to successfully move forward.

Promising Young Woman is a film about someone who has not moved forward. When the film begins, we don’t know what has hurt Cassie; we simply know she carries a deep wound. And this injury motivates a very dangerous pastime — she pretends to be incapacitated by alcohol every weekend at a bar until a man comes along who inevitably will attempt to sexually assault her. She frightens them with her lucid, avenging agency. Her parents and boss do not know about her weekend hobby, but they do see that she is a “promising young woman” who is stuck in place, trapped in grief.

But Cassie is not the only “promising young woman” in the film — it also refers to her best friend, Nina, who was sexually assaulted when they were in medical school. Nina apparently took her own life in the aftermath, after a video circulated among their peers. Cassie blames herself for not being there for her, and she feels a bottomless rage for not only Nina’s rapist but the many people who facilitated the assault and cover up. But most of all she feels unending, inconsolable grief. Cassie is frozen — which the film emphasizes through many shots of lead actress Carey Mulligan alone in the frame, emotions boiling under the surface of her weary face.

Cassie does try to move forward over the course of the film, and writer-director Emerald Fennel teases a variety of different movie endings for her character. The film initially suggests this may be of the rape revenge fantasy genre, an exploitation genre that typically results in a victim becoming a triumphant avenging angel. But then Cassie has a meet cute with Ryan, a classmate from medical school, and some of the audience might hope she’ll be saved by a romance plot. We get a pop love song over a montage of relationship scenes. However, without spoiling a plot turn, it will suffice to say that this isn’t that kind of movie. Finally, the film, with all its tonal shifts, shows it is a tragedy.

It is an example of a film about an inability — perhaps willful refusal — to heal from a loss. 

But that tragic ending is not the conclusion of the film. Fennel was forced to add another ending to the film — a coda for cheers — to appease financial backers. Such a change reflects market sensibilities. It is undoubtedly the case that the final ending, while still bleak, is more commercial. The new ending allows the audience to feel some measure of catharsis and to move forward. But there is something lost when we can’t sit with the irrecoverable.

Promising Young Woman is not a film that tells us what traumatized and grieving people should do. Nina’s mother tells Cassie it would be better for her to move on not only for herself but for everyone else, and this is undoubtedly true for the character. But with the original ending, the film asks us to accept grief that will never end, and continually sympathize with someone who will not triumph and will not heal. It is an example of a film about an inability — perhaps willful refusal — to heal from a loss. Manchester by the Sea is another example, as counter to narrative expectations, everyone in a man’s orbit must be made to accept that he cannot and will not recover from a trauma. We are culturally uncomfortable with the inconsolable. And perhaps even more uncomfortable with the ethically inconsolable. Therapeutic intervention undoubtedly would have been better for Cassie. But for the audience, sitting with her righteous, unending sorrow is a powerful rejection of the inevitability of healing in a world where too many are emotionally wounded and lost to us forever.


Headline image: Carey Mulligan as Cassie in Promising Young Woman. Image courtesy Focus Features.