Emerald Fennell’s directorial debut is many things: a revenge film set in the era of #MeToo, an inquiry into the idea of monsters, a dark comedy, a showcase for lead Carey Mulligan’s acting talent, an opportunity for “Eighth Grade” director Bo Burnham to prove himself in front of the camera as the romantic counterpart and a chance for audiences to experience the trauma of hookup culture through a female gaze. It’s funny and sad, and at times, pretty extreme. Which is to say the film is complicated — and intentionally so.
“Every woman I know has had something happen pretty much, yet none of the men I know have done anything ,” says Fennell, who also wrote the script. “But I don’t think that means that people aren’t telling the truth, I think it means there’s a huge gap in empathy and understanding between people. And I think that our culture has sort of been complicit, movies and songs, in making behavior that is awful completely normal.”
The premise of the movie, which is revealed in the opening sequence, is a young woman — later revealed as a med school dropout grappling with a mysterious past tragedy involving her best friend — who goes out to clubs and pretends to be drunk, setting a trap for whichever guy-of-the-night spots her and decides to take her home to hook up. As each guy moves in to seal the deal, she reveals that she’s in fact totally sober.
“It’s completely normal still to go to nightclubs and take people home that you shouldn’t,” says Fennell of her tactic of interrogating the culturally prevalent “seduction method.” “And for me it’s like, if I went to a nightclub and pretended to be drunk and someone took me home, and then I revealed that I wasn’t drunk, if they were frightened by that, that’s because they know that they were doing something wrong.”
It sounds dark and heavy, but the film is balanced by restrained humor. And Fennell, upbeat and outgoing, doesn’t seem to take herself too seriously despite her impressive résumé; ahead of “Promising Young Women” she served as showrunner for season two of “Killing Eve,” and as an actress portrayed Camilla Shand in the third season of “The Crown.” The 34-year-old Brit isn’t afraid of leaning into her own truth, and in “PYW,” that truth is making the entirety of Paris Hilton’s single “Stars Are Blind” integral to a romantic sequence.
“A lot of songs in this film are for a generation of women; these are all songs that we love and maybe culturally we’ve been told that like eye-roll, guilty pleasure — but f–k off, I love Britney Spears, I love that Paris Hilton song,” says Fennell, who wrote the song into the script before contacting Hilton’s team about including it (they were on board). “These are the things I like: I like Paris Hilton, I like manicures, I like stuff that makes you feel a little bit icky, I like making people laugh after seeing something genuinely terrible.”
Fennell finds moral ambiguity quite exciting, and none of the characters are ever off the hook of being interrogated, even the main one.
“I don’t want there to be any absolutes, ever,” she says. “Certainly anything I make, my hope is that people will at least even if they don’t like it, they’ll think about it,” she adds. “I feel very vulnerable showing something like this to people, because in your heart of hearts you know it’s not going to be liked by everyone, but that doesn’t stop the fact that you want people to at least appreciate what you’re trying to do, or the conversation you want.”
So far, response has been positive across demographics.
“There’s a funny thing about this movie where people say, ‘I wonder what X will think. I like it, but I wonder if other people will like it,'” she says. “That’s why I so wanted to do this movie, just to be appealing to everyone because it’s honest and it’s funny and it’s gripping — and it just happens to be incredibly dark.”
Given the chance, she’ll do it again.
“I hope I’m allowed, I hope I’m not blackballed,” she says, laughing. “To work with people that I love and women that I love and tell stories hopefully that haven’t been seen before or haven’t in a certain way: what a joy.”
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