A mother’s void after losing her son leads her into the unexpected in Fernanda Valadez’s solid drama.
It has been a long-running story tied to Latino culture. Since there was such a topic as emigrating from one’s mother country — be it Mexico, Dominican Republic, or Cuba — in search of a better future, there has been an untold number of illegal entries either by land or by sea. With those entries, many successful, there are always, without fail, the ones that end tragically.
I was lucky to see Fernanda Valadez’s drama of the sordid lives of the forgotten last November at the AFI LatinX Film Festival. Valadez’s story seemed too poignant, too much of an open wound to ignore. I had written some notes about its haunted story and left it at that because I felt it needed another view. When it came out again at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, I jumped at it almost immediately. That already announces how good this movie is, even when it is slightly obscure and with hints of magical realism,
Identifying Features (Sin Señas Particulares) tells the story of Magdalena (Mercedes Hernandez), a woman of no stature and scant education, whose son Jesús (Juan Jesús Varela) goes missing and is presumed dead after an attempt to cross the border and seek a future in the US. Getting next to no help from authorities, relying on hearsay and the kindness of strangers, Magdalena, needing closure, sets out into the unknown in search of whatever happened to her son.
Her search dovetails with that of another young man named Miguel (David Illescas) who was in the vicinity of where Jesús was last seen and is on his way home. As they interact with one another, a vague, tenuous mother-son bond starts to form, and Magdalena begins to wonder if her search may have been not for the son she lost, but a son she could still have.
Valadez’s movie is a shadowy experience. Because it seeks to disclose a system of anarchy that seems to be working in tandem with local officers, a sense of lethal corruption permeates her narrative. No one speaks in a direct way for fear of some unknown, exacting punishment. People who decide to help Magdalena often talk to her off-screen, sometimes in near-whispers. One snippet of information leads Magdalena to the next snippet until she comes face to face with a terrible reality.
Viewers seeking narratives that focus on the lives of migrants will come to appreciate Valadez’s textured mystery-drama and even appreciate its slight deviations into magical realism. I think this is a strong debut feature film and almost wish that Mexico would have submitted this one instead of I’m No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aquí) because of its theme of those who’ve slipped into the cracks of a system that exploits the poor for a few corrupt dollars.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic shot an entire cinematic year to hell, I had planned on viewing this odd film that had hit trailers as early as February 2020 and was set to premiere a month or so later. I wasn’t too keen on it, being that the trailer painted it out to be a simplistic, trashy revenge-fantasy thriller with slight brushstrokes of many other revenge-fantasy movies that have come out in recent years. However, and mostly because Carey Mulligan for once was outside of a costume and not drowning in a period film — a place she’s been stationed since the very start of her career as an actress — I decided that yes, I would see Promising Young Woman when it finally made it onto virtual platforms almost a year later,
Mulligan plays Cassandra, a 30-year-old woman who we first see in the film’s bravura opening scene as helplessly drunk and a prime target for what exactly happens in short order. When a guy (Adam Brody in a small part), taunted by friends, attempts to help her get home — Cassandra can barely even function, let alone get home in one piece — it looks as though he will actually deliver on being a Good Man, However, he decides to take control over the situation, and over Cassandra. What he isn’t aware is that Cassandra isn’t drunk. Or helpless. And that he’s in big trouble. “What are you doing?” she demands, rising from the bed that he’s placed her against her will, sober as a clear day in June, unsmiling.
This is the first of several turns the movie takes and we’re barely into the tip of the iceberg. Emerald Fennell dives us into the life of Cassandra — post-opening scene — as she works in an ice cream store owned by her friend Gail (Laverne Cox). She lives home with her parents (Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown), who wonder what happened to their baby girl. You see, Cassandra was this stellar student poised for immediate and guaranteed success as a surgeon. Something took place that essentially stalled her in the prime of her life, and now she’s seen the world go by while at night she goes hunting for men to shame. A closer glimpse at a ledger she keeps reveals that she’s been doing this for a long time now. But why?
The answer to this will get revealed later on. In the meantime, like the heroine in Park Chan-wook’s Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, Cassandra has a few stops to do. First off is an ex-classmate (Alison Brie) with whom she has a rather revealing conversation, followed by the dean of the school (played by Connie Britton) she attended, whom she gives a taste of her own medicine. While we realize that perhaps what Cassandra is doing is venturing into truly ugly territory, we also realize that she is completely justified. Fennell delivers a powerful commentary on how society has allowed men to behave badly and get away with it for so long its become normalized even by the women who get trampled under the violence men inflict upon them.
While this is all happening, Cassandra has met and is having serious thoughts about Ryan (Bo Burnham). Ryan enters the film as a truly nice guy. From the moment he walks into the ice cream store the chemistry between himself and Cassandra is extremely strong — so palpable that it leaps off the screen. It’s then a surprise that he would know someone that Cassandra is seeking. That someone, unlike her, has not only moved on with his life but is also getting married. Should Cassandra forget her road to retaliation or settle down with Ryan? The plot thickens.
Promising Young Woman arrives at an interesting juncture. Had it been made back in the 80s, we probably would have been saddled with something closer to The Accused. It’s mind-boggling that as a society, the rape of a female has never openly been discussed in film (unless it came in documentary form, such as The Invisible War, to name one, or guilty pleasures like the French film Revenge from 2018. It is safe to say that the fallout of the likes of Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, and the #metoo movement have spawned a conversation in which stories where we see disempowered women facing not just sexual, but emotional and mental abuse get told. If you were to erase the physical violence inflicted on an invisible character that we witness through a phone and a character’s reaction, and the society that allows it, you would have The Assistant, another great drama that tells the story of a belittled woman temping in an office run by testosterone-poisoned men who gleefully abuse their positions with next to no restraint.
Much has been said from where the movie eventually goes with its story. When I first saw it back in mid-January I equally loved its candy-colored look reminiscent of the 80s and how Cassandra’s story, divided into four parts, took her from floating aimlessly as a female vigilante to relentless avenger of those who don’t have a voice. The final outcome of the film — which I will not discuss here — will essentially make or break the movie for you, plain and simple. You will either understand the director’s vision of what she wanted to achieve or not even bother with the very last scene. I, for one, was both horrified and shaken. It takes guts to present the audience with something that will leave a sour aftertaste. In another time Fennell would have had to completely re-film the ending — and her being a female director would have had nothing to do with it.
Promising Young Woman, while being entrenched very much in the revenge fantasy theme, offers its best asset in a thrilling performance by Carey Mulligan. Here she plays both damaged and fearless in one relentless whole. Some of her decisions might not make much sense, but they add up to the math and work for the story. A scorned woman is a dangerous being, indeed.