Is Promising Young Woman a True Story?

Carey Mulligan stars as "Cassandra" in director Emerald Fennell’s PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features

‘Promising Young Woman’ is Emerald Fennell’s first directorial venture. It tells the story of Cassandra “Cassie” Thomas (Carey Mulligan), a med-school dropout whose life seems to be trapped in limbo. She doesn’t have a boyfriend, works at a coffee shop, and lives with her parents. It is revealed that she left medical school with her friend Nina after the latter was raped while being under the influence of alcohol. Nina has since passed away.

While her rapist was never punished, Cassie has found a way to atone for it. Once a week, she goes out to a nightclub and pretends to be drunk until a man approaches her under the pretext of helping her. They then almost inevitably take her to their homes, where they try to take advantage of her while she is deeply inebriated. She then lets them know that she is very much sober, giving them the fright of their lives.

After Cassie learns that her friend’s rapist and others involved in the case are leading normal lives, she embarks on a path of vengeance. The film subverts the audience’s expectations by not turning into an exploitation thriller. Instead, through its gut-wrenching ending, it takes a much more somber route, while keeping its accusatory finger pointed at society. ‘Promising Young Woman’ feels uncomfortably real, as if Fennell is holding up a mirror to the society. But is it rooted in reality? Let’s find out!

Is Promising Young Woman Based on a True Story?

No, ‘Promising Young Woman’ is not based on a true story. Fennell wrote the screenplay herself. However, while the characters and their stories are fictional, the setting of the film is very much real. What happens to Nina is date rape, something that has become disturbingly common on campuses all over the world. Like it is shown in the film, the act is often preceded by excessive consumption of alcohol and/or administration of a date drug. The victims predominantly tend to be other college students, their age ranging from late teens to early 20s. Most of the perpetrators also fall in that age bracket.

In recent years, this is increasingly becoming a prevalent issue in the club scene as well. The title of the film refers to both Cassie and Nina. They were brilliant, young women slated for greatness until something as vile as rape took their respective futures away from them. Through the film, Fennell satirizes the expression “not all men” by repeatedly demonstrating that the self-proclaimed “nice men” are not much different from the so-called alpha males. Men belonging to the former group just pretend to be kinder and more thoughtful.

As Cassie says one time in the film, almost all the potential rapists she catches during her nightly excursions are these “nice men”. She made a conscious decision while casting the likes of Adam Brody, Max Greenfield, Chris Lowell, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and Bo Burnham in these roles. “I didn’t want to cast lots of malevolent goblins,” she stated in an interview. “I wanted to cast people that we all want to like. When you hear something about somebody you love, you don’t want to believe it.”

The writer-director further added, “I want to test at every stage our affiliations, our allegiances. It’s so much more interesting than, ‘Oh, well he’s evil and I hope he dies’.” ‘Promising Young Woman’ has received much recognition for faithfully depicting society’s lackluster attitude towards the victims. Fennell carefully selected the tracks she wanted to use for the film. The violin cover of Britney Spears’ “Toxic” not only creates the perfect dramatic atmosphere in the film but also highlights the core problem with all the male characters.

Read More: Promising Young Woman Ending, Explained