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Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

Promising Young Woman – Screenplay

By May 18, 2021No Comments

Oh, where to start? Well, the opening description in writer/director Emerald Fennell’s screenplay for Promising Young Woman is so great that I might as well quote it verbatim:

A super-depressing dancefloor on a Thursday night. 2-for-1 shots and a sticky floor. The kind of last-resort place people end up after work having accidentally nailed ten “just one” drinks.

A bored DJ plays the DROELOE remix of “Boys” by Charlie XCX, while the thin and kind of tragic crowd dances.

We linger on the men dancing in particular, their bodies, the sweat running down their backs as they grind and thrust. The slow-mo, the lascivious pan-up, the sort of erotic gaze normally reserved for oiled-up music-video hotties. Except we’re looking at regular dudes in chinos with absolutely no dancing ability.

Wanna know how to open a script? You could do worse than that.

I could dissect all the ways this is perfection—the apropos “Boys” needle drop, the spot-on imagery, the thematic social commentary—but the simple fact is those three paragraphs are fun to read. Fennell’s wry voice on the page is an excellent introduction for the story to come. It’s the sort of style that immediately hooks a reader and leaves them eager to read the next paragraph. “Super-depressing dancefloor,” “2-for-1 shots and a sticky floor,” “the thin and kind of tragic crowd,” “regular dudes in chinos with absolutely no dancing ability”? Not only are those fun turns of phrase, but they’re evocative descriptors for that bar where we’ve all randomly ended up against our better judgment.

Promising Young Woman is a darkly comedic thriller with bubblegum pop sensibility that hooks its viewers from the opening shots. The narrative follows Cassie Thomas, who’s introduced at that same last-resort dive. She’s visibly drunk, barely coherent, and a male patron offers to order her a ride. He brings her back to his apartment, he starts to take things too far, and then Cassie opens her eyes. She’s completely sober and ready to teach him a lesson. You see, Cassie is a feminist vigilante who goes to bars playing drunk and terrifies unsuspecting “good guys” to teach them lessons about consent. And as an opening scene, it’s equal parts gripping and provocative.

Revealing too much of the plot is probably ill-advised—Promising Young Woman is one of those films that’s best enjoyed without knowing too many details. The (divisive) final act features what might be the most radical plot twist in recent years. It’s rare to see a movie commit in such a way, but it doesn’t feel gratuitous. It’s a natural extension of the themes, characters, and plot points Fennell had spent the first 90 minutes building. It’s upsetting in a unique way that raises unique questions about revenge movies and toxic masculinity in general.

Regardless, the screenplay is delicately structured, and Emerald Fennell’s voice is engaging throughout. At the end of the day, she didn’t just win the Oscar—she outright deserved it.

Read the Promising Young Woman Screenplay

Michael Owens is a screenwriter from Long Beach, California, and graduated from the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts with a degree in screenwriting. As a writer, Michael tends to pair contemporary themes with character-driven stories and an off-kilter sense of humor, and he currently reviews screenplays and other creative material for Pipeline Media Group as a Senior Development Executive.