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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