Promising Young Woman, disjointed muddled film

Cinemas have been eerily abandoned for over a year now, and drifting past them through deserted city centres felt at times like finding yourself in a scene from The Omega Man. So it’s perfectly understandable that we should all latch on to some of the new releases when they do surface and greet them much as a man in a desert might welcome of bottle of bog standard bottled water. None the less, the hoopla that Promising Young Woman generated was somewhat baffling.

Basically, it harks back to those late 80s, early 90s zeitgeist movies that Hollywood periodically gravitates towards. The title of course references Single White Female, but what it feels like more than anything else is a riposte to Basic Instinct and Fatal Attraction. Essentially, it’s a revenge film for the Me Too era. And its problems are twofold.

First, is it a revenge thriller? There’s a visual joke early on around a hot dog which is genuinely funny and plays on the question of what exactly it was that our heroine did to her previous night’s ‘victim’. But that ambiguity is never resolved. 

Is this a good old-fashioned slasher movie, and are we looking at a female answer to Charles Bronson in Death Wish? Or is our heroine a complex, moral character carefully carrying out a precisely calibrated plan?

Some have welcomed this ambiguity as further evidence of the film’s charms. But all it means is that we’re never sure of what kind of person she is, that is to say what type of character she represents, and therefore what kind of film it is that we’re watching. This confusion is exacerbated by the second of its problems. Its structure.

Todd Solondz’ Happiness.

Effectively, it’s three films in one. It begins as what seems to be some sort of a revenge thriller come slasher movie. Then it morphs into an impeccably crafted, very left of field indie, personal drama. The scenes inside the house with her parents are wonderfully claustrophobic and feel like something out of a Todd Solondz film. 

But suddenly, about half way through, it lurches into rom com territory, as the Carey Mulligan character hooks up with an ex class mate, played by Bo Burnham. But about 20 minutes into this, it reverts back to revenge thriller mode.

The problem is, Bo Burnham’s performance is so impressively naturalistic and so winningly believable in the rom com section that the rest of the film’s parts are thrown completely out of kilter. Mulligan of course, it almost goes without saying, is wonderful throughout. She adopts a studied neutrality which manages to meld perfectly with each of the film’s three modes. 

But the sections with her parents, who are quietly mannered and off, grate horribly with the revenge movie sections, in which the villains, and for villains read males, are painted with such broad brushstrokes and are all so one dimensional they’re little more than cartoon caricatures. Which would have been fine if the whole film had been like that. But it’s not. 

Mulligan and Burnham are foot perfect but they’ve wandered into a whole new film.

When, for instance, you meet those sorts of moustache-twiddling villains in the likes of Killing Eve, you either sit back and accept them or you turn over to something else. That they should surface here makes compete sense as this is the feature debut of Emerald Fennell, who was one of Killing Eve’s principle writers and its show runner for season 2. 

The problem with Promising Young Woman is that Fennell was unable to decide on exactly what kind of film she wanted it to be. So unfortunately, it just ended up as a mess. A very well made mess, with a pair of stand-out performances. But a mess none the less.

You can see the trailer for Promising Young Woman here.

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Bo Burnham’s glorious “Eighth Grade”

Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade.

For all the disruption and chaos unleashed by the digital revolution and the brand new medium it spawned, the Internet, the media landscape that has emerged is, at least thus far, stubbornly traditional. Nobody in publishing, cinema or television dreams of being on the Internet. And nobody on the web is perfectly happy where they are. 

All of them dream, with a desperation that is palpable, of landing that publishing, TV and or cinema deal. Hitherto however, none of them had seemed to offer anything other than a pale facsimile of the kind of talent on view in the more traditional media. Most Youtubers and influencers have come across as diaphanously transparent and guilelessly unsophisticated.

So Eighth Grade will be one of two things. The exception that goes to prove an otherwise golden rule. Or the first of what will prove to be an increasingly common phenomenon. The work of a crossover artist who successfully straddles both the new and the old.

Elsie Fisher as Kayla in Eighth Grade.

Eighth Grade isn’t merely good, it’s stunning. Comfortably the film of the year, and one of the top six or seven films of the decade. And there are so many different ways it could have been a complete disaster. 

The film follows Kayla, a 12 year old who’s recently turned 13 and is moving from what we call primary into secondary school. So, unlike any other girl of her age, she is unimaginably insecure, cripplingly shy and hopelessly socially awkward. So she disappears into her screen, investing all of her care and attention in her digital persona, resigned to be forever friendless and impossibly alone in the real world beyond the pixels. 

Bo Burnham.

It could so easily have been cloyingly sentimental, or patronising or sanitized, or, most obviously of all, Hollywoodized – i.e. a sickly concoction of all of the above. Remarkably, not to say impressively, it is instead a beautifully nuanced, subtle and grown-up portrait of a girl, as she moves from childhood into that brief, intermediate state before emerging as a fully-fledged adult. 

It’s hard to know which is more note-worthy, Bo Burnham’s writing, his direction, or Elsie Fisher’s performance as Kayla. All the performances are impeccable, and Josh Hamilton is especially good as her well meaning but generationally clumsy father. But Fisher is outstanding in the lead. Yet it is ultimately Burnham who emerges as the real star. Because Eighth Grade is that rare thing, a serious film. And Burnham is verily a man to watch.

You can see the trailer to Eighth Grade here.

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