CineWomen: Emerald Fennell makes ‘Promising’ debut with ‘Young Woman’
Plus ‘One Night in Miami’ by Regina King, ‘Herself’ and ‘Mamma Mia!’ by Phyllida Lloyd, ‘Illusions’ by Julie Dash
Ten months into the coronavirus crisis, Hollywood seems to be settling into the reality of what movie releases look like for the foreseeable future. This month’s CineWomen titles Promising Young Woman, One Night in Miami, and Herself all saw the inside of at least one movie theater in December before moving online this month.
Cinemas are still closed in Los Angeles, though, so I’m covering them now, from the venue in which I’m still watching movies: my living room or, if the television is occupied by Zelda, on my laptop.
It’s the venue from which I expect to be watching movies for a while yet. I’m finding it hard to imagine, at this point, a day when L.A. cinemas will be able to open again; even harder to picture one when I’d feel comfortable going.
‘Promising Young Woman’
When we first meet Cassie (Carey Mulligan) in Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman, she’s disheveled. Disoriented. Clearly inebriated. Draped across a red banquette in a bar, on display for the dudebros ogling her in disgust with the familiar refrain that she’s “asking for it.”
In what has become a weekly ritual for our heroine, one of them, who thinks of himself as a “good guy,” offers to take her home, but they end up at his apartment instead, where he gives her a drink, takes her to bed, kisses and fondles her.
“Hey,” she says, looking directly into the camera — for we are in on the ruse now — “what are you doing?”
Cassie isn’t drunk. And this isn’t a good guy. He is, however, another hash mark in the notebook where she keeps track of her one-woman crusade to confront good guys (played by a series of actors with a history of playing good guys onscreen) with their own toxic masculinity.
In Fennell’s candy-colored revenge fantasy, the heroine wields her femininity as a weapon.
By day, Cassie is a medical school dropout still living at home with her parents and working at a coffee shop. Her double life escalates when Ryan (Bo Burnham), an old classmate, walks in. He’s funny and sweet and seems like a genuinely good guy — there’s that characterization again — and she finds herself falling for him. By the time the pair is dancing to Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind” in the aisles of a pharmacy — just one example of how Fennell, the showrunner on the second season of Killing Eve, cleverly leverages a pop soundtrack — we are swooning too.
At the same time, however, Ryan’s reentry into Cassie’s life reminds her of why she quit school, and what happened to her dear friend Nina, and her targets expand to include a female peer who didn’t think it was that big of a deal, a school administrator who didn’t do anything about it, and a lawyer who defended the perpetrator.
Along the way she hears how long ago it was, how young they were, how nothing could be proved, but Cassie has no more fucks to give and lets no one off the hook — not even herself, and certainly not the audience.
In a part that’s a bit of a tonal departure for the actress, Mulligan (An Education, Mudbound) brings maturity and gravity to a character who’s at once dryly witty and dangerously cunning, capable of both coy flirtation and a death stare, in a vengeful thriller disguised as a soda-pop romp.
The controversial ending of Promising Young Woman seems inevitable and sadly satisfying. Cassie gets her revenge, but she has to sacrifice herself to get it. Viewers may want more from her — for her — but the reality is, too many victims of sexual assault don’t see any sort of justice, and Cassie’s fate feels necessary until they consistently do.
Promising Young Woman (2020), directed by Emerald Fennell (digital)
‘One Night in Miami’
The scenario posed in Regina King’s One Night in Miami is true: Twenty-two-year-old Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) did spend the night he unexpectedly beat Sonny Liston to win his first world heavyweight title in 1964 not partying hard in the Magic City but holed up in the Black-friendly Hampton House Motel with civil rights activist Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), NFL star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), and singer-songwriter Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.).
What these four icons talked about isn’t known but rather heavily speculated upon in Kemp Powers’ script based on his stageplay, inspired by events that transpired in proximity to it. Shortly after this night, for example, Clay joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. Malcolm X announced that he was breaking with the Nation of Islam and converting to Sunni Islam. Sam Cooke performed his civil rights ballad “A Change Is Gonna Come” on Johnny Carson (though in real life this occurred before the seminal night).
One Night in Miami posits, then, that the friends spent it reflecting on and confronting each other about their roles as Black celebrities: Do they also have a social responsibility to take on the mantle of civil rights leadership? And if so, how?
Much like the boxing match that precedes their confab, the men are constrained by the confines of the modest hotel room yet dynamically filmed as they spar. For people invested in social justice, the questions that King and her characters grapple with continue to persist today.
One Night in Miami (2020), directed by Regina King (Amazon)
Phyllida Lloyd’s Herself is a modest Irish movie about a single mom who builds a little house for herself and her two young daughters. Sweet enough, but the circumstances that motivate her plan — brutal domestic abuse, the threat of homelessness, and an unfriendly bureaucracy that puts up obstacles to her escape from both — throb with urgent topicality.
When Sandra (co-writer Clare Dunne) leaves her abusive husband, she and her girls are placed in an airport hotel far from where the kids go to school and where she works two jobs waitressing at a pub and cleaning house for cantankerous retired doctor Peggy (Harriet Walker). Worse, they aren’t even allowed to enter their home through the lobby.
Inspired by her daughter’s bedtime story, Sandra starts to dream about building her own house, then researching it, then actually doing it. But first she needs a little bit of land. And a blueprint. And supplies. And help — a lot of help.
That last bit is the hardest for someone who has effectively been hiding her situation from her employer and the other moms at school, but it’s also the film’s overriding theme. If some pieces fall into a place a bit too conveniently — cranky Peggy turns out to have a generous streak and a big backyard — they’re overcome by the message that it takes a village.
To build a house, yes — but also for Sandra to rebuild herself.
Sandra’s is a devastating story, but also a triumphant one — not necessarily in that order. And with Lloyd’s handheld camerawork that gets us up close and personal — we’re part of the crew every step of the way.
Herself (2020), directed by Phyllida Lloyd (Amazon)
Lloyd’s first film was an entirely different affair: 2008’s Mamma Mia! based on the jukebox musical she first mounted on the West End that ultimately grossed more than $600 million at the global box office. Featuring a string of ABBA songs such as “Dancing Queen,” “Take a Chance on Me,” and, of course, “Mamma Mia,” the plot hangs by the frayed thread of a wedding with unexpected guests.
Namely, bride-to-be Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) has never met her father, so she invites back to the Greek isle the three beaus her mother Donna (Meryl Streep) had trysts with that fateful summer twenty years ago: Sam (Pierce Brosnan), Harry (Colin Firth), and Bill (Stellan Skarsgård).
The trio’s surprise arrival throws everyone into a tizzy: Sophie, who doesn’t recognize her father on sight like she thought she would; her fiancé Sky (Dominic Cooper), who suspects she pushed for a big wedding in order to finagle this family reunion; and most of all Donna, who thought she’d left these three dudes in the past.
When all of this — both past and present — supposedly takes place is a hot mess, but that’s the least of the story’s weaknesses that are bolstered by a soundtrack that lodges multiple relentless earworms and infections outbursts of joy, particularly by Donna and her middle-aged gal pals Rosie (Julie Walters) and Tanya (Christine Baranski).
An experienced, award-winning theater and opera director, Lloyd exerts keen control of the film’s energy, if not its specious plot.
Mamma Mia! (2008), directed by Phyllida Lloyd (Peacock)
Before Julie Dash wrote and directed her magnum opus Daughters of the Dust, she made a handful of short films including Four Women, in which one dancer portrays four stereotypes of Black American women to the eponymous Nina Simone tune, and Diary of an African Nun, based on the short story by Alice Walker. Dash’s most significant work before Daughters was Illusions, a thirty-four-minute narrative film that takes on racism and sexism in the movie industry.
Set in 1942 Hollywood, Lonette McKee plays Mignon Dupree, a white-passing Black woman working at National Studios. Among her duties is to help maintain the illusion of white talent by dubbing white film stars with Black singers’ voices in an extended scene for a short. Bigger picture, she’s part of an apparatus that creates the illusion of history — one that cuts Black people out and delivers aspirational stories to the exclusion of everyday lives.
The sound on the copy I viewed is at times muddied, but Dash composes a few really striking frames, including using reflections to create compelling two shots. And Dupree’s climactic monologue overcomes any didacticism with the sheer force of passion.
Illusions, selected last year for inclusion in the National Film Registry, solidified Dash’s place in the L.A. Rebellion, a movement of Black filmmakers out of UCLA in the 1960s–1980s. It is among several of her short films currently available on the Criterion Channel.