Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman (Photo: Focus Features)

★★★½ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Emerald Fennell
STARS Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham

(For a look at The Best & Worst Films of 2020, go here.)

Carey Mulligan delivers what might have been the finest performance of 2020 in Promising Young Woman, a Me Too movement meme taking the form of a riveting motion picture.

Mulligan stars as Cassie Thomas, a coffee-shop employee who dropped out of medical school due to a tragic incident that only completely comes into focus over the course of the film. Still living at home with her parents (Clancy Brown and Jennifer Coolidge), Cassie spends every weekend going to bars, where she pretends to be drunk and allows men to take her to their pad. Once they put the moves on her, she drops the ruse and confronts them about their behavior. While most of these would-be rapists can only sputter, “I’m really a nice guy!” Cassie is clearly putting herself in dangerous situations. Yet it’s all part of a greater scheme, an epic plan of correcting past wrongs and exacting her own measure of revenge. But while Cassie is a miserable, damaged soul, she might have found a lifeline in Ryan (Bo Burnham), a former fellow student who reenters her life with the unexpectedness of a white knight on horseback.

Written and directed by Emerald Fennell, a Killing Eve head honcho here making her directorial debut, Promising Young Woman is bold, brave, and bracing, with a narrative that takes some shocking and unexpected turns. The character of Cassie registers as a conversation piece on her own — she’s a person worthy of debate, and many viewers will applaud her actions while others will view some of them as extreme. Indeed, neither Fennell nor Mulligan pull any punches, with even the film’s final stretch painfully pointing out the toxicity of a patriarchal society. It’s not a movie for the faint of heart.

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