Why ‘Promising Young Woman’ Has One of the Best Acting Ensembles of 2020

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Photo Source: Merie Weismiller Wallace/Focus Features

As we look back at 2020, we at Backstage have pinpointed the year’s best big- and small-screen ensemble work for your SAG Awards consideration and beyond. For more voting guides and roundups, we’ve got you covered here.

Main Cast:  Alison Brie, Connie Britton, Adam Brody, Clancy Brown, Bo Burnham, Jennifer Coolidge, Laverne Cox, Max Greenfield, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Alfred Molina, Carey Mulligan, Sam Richardson, Molly Shannon
Casting by: Lindsay Graham and Mary Vernieu
Directed by: Emerald Fennell
Written by: Emerald Fennell
Distributed by: Focus Features

It’s Carey Mulligan’s world in “Promising Young Woman.” But without the support of this feminist revenge thriller’s star-studded ensemble, there would really be no story. 

But first, let’s talk about Mulligan’s buzzy performance in the titular role of this Sundance Film Festival favorite. The award-winning actor’s résumé already speaks to her chameleonic abilities; but her portrayal of Cassandra, a troubled millennial living a vengeful double life, feels like more of an achievement than if she were playing completely against type. From the squirm-inducing opening scene onward, Mulligan makes it clear that there’s more to Cassie than meets the eye, and it’s all pretty dark. 

Whether she’s pretending to be drunk to trick a man at a bar or hatching an elaborate blackmail plot to cope with the loss of her late friend, Cassie is in control of every sticky situation. She’s calm, collected, and comes off as entirely unsuspicious—which renders her all the more dangerous. Watching Mulligan reveal her character’s true motives makes for an exhilarating, and even frightening, viewing experience.

Then there’s Bo Burnham as genial love interest Ryan. In a film that’s decidedly not about happy endings, Burnham plays the consummate boyfriend: he’s got a good job in which he cares for others, and he’s thoughtful, friendly, and exactly what women are told to look for. He has such an effortlessly easygoing vibe that he’s able to disarm both Cassie and us—until we learn that there may be more to his story. 

Laverne Cox as Cassie’s boss and friend, Gail, on the other hand, is all lightness and normalcy—one of this story’s few characters who is, thankfully, exactly who she appears to be. Her candy-hued Southern California coffee shop provides context for Cassie’s routine by day and an eerie contrast to her misadventures by night.

While few men other than Burnham claim much screen time, the succession of Hollywood “nice guys” could not have been more perfectly curated by casting directors Lindsay Graham and Mary Vernieu. Adam Brody as Jerry, Sam Richardson as Paul, Christopher Mintz-Plasse as Neil, Max Greenfield as Joe, and others become caught up in Cassie’s revenge plot, supporting the story without stealing focus.

Other short but notable appearances in “Promising Young Woman” include Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown as Cassie’s parents, Molly Shannon as the mother of her late friend, and Alfred Molina as a guilt-ridden lawyer. Connie Britton plays a school dean forced to answer for inaction in the face of sexual assault, while Alison Brie plays a former classmate of Cassie’s (and a convincing drunk) who meets up to reminisce. Both exchanges begin breezily and end up riddled with tension.

Each of these supporters embody characters who we feel could live just down the block. Their comedy chops are important, but even more so are their abilities to balance them with the film’s darker tones. That’s the trick with the tonal tightrope that this story walks: Writer-director Emerald Fennell and the team at Betty Mae Casting had a lot of roles to fill with actors skilled enough to make an impact, but in smaller roles than audiences are used to seeing from such stars.

The result is a tangled web of characters encircling Mulligan’s Cassie, each holding something unexpected in store for this supremely satisfying thrill ride.

This story originally appeared in the Jan. 20 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

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