*Content Warning* This article contains triggering descriptions about sexual assault.

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Phoenix Best Picture First Place - Promising Young Woman

Female-fronted first features featuring fresh faces

Who Should Win: Promising Young Woman

Promising Young Woman, the directorial debut of writer Emerald Fennell, is a darkly comedic, subversive thriller that holds a mirror to society and demands to know why our worst, most abhorrent behaviours are so prevalent and accepted. Tackling the subjects of consent, sexual assault, and sexist double standards, Promising Young Woman condemns complacency as much as evil.

Every week, Cassie Thomas (Cary Mulligan) goes to a bar and pretends to be too drunk to walk. In a reversal of a classic trope, Cassie does this to get taken home by “nice guys”, testing them through the rest of the night. When they inevitably try to take advantage of her, Cassie reveals she wasn’t drunk at all, and confronts them, before the film fades to black.

The plot of Promising Young Woman is set in motion when Cassie gets the opportunity to avenge a friend who was assaulted years earlier. In the process, Cassie not only sets her sights on her friend’s rapist but exposes every person who sat back and let it happen. As Cassie confronts ex-frat boys turned “upstanding professionals”, uncaring university administrators, and a ruthless former lawyer, everyone is given a chance to atone. But when confronted by an angel of wrath and faced with taking responsibility for their indifference, most can only spout platitudes or deflect, saying “we were kids” or “she was into it”.

Promising Young Woman is thought-provoking right down to the casting. Mulligan is brilliant as Cassie, turning from melancholic romantic to woman scorned at the drop of a hat. Bo Burnham, Adam Brody, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse, known mostly for playing lovable dorks, are given a dark underside that shows any “nice guy” could be a predator in disguise. Clancy Brown, Jennifer Coolidge, and Molly Shannon are cast against their usual, eccentric types as toned-down parents. Their role in Cassie’s story is to ask when it’s alright to move on from tragedy.

Fennell’s directing choices and screenplay are also highlights of the film. Cassie’s main conflict is initially kept under wraps. Halfway through the film, a few innocuous comments from side characters lead Cassie to set her final plans in motion, revealing her backstory, and making sense of her choices throughout the film. The way Cassie is written, she often comes off more like a traditional antagonist, making it impressive that the audience still sympathizes with her.

Cassie kidnaps a child, drugs an ex-classmate, and does other typically malicious things. But though Fennell never frames these as “good things”, the reactions to Cassie’s deeds often force the audience to consider that Cassie might not be the one in the wrong.

Cassie can’t move on from the tragedy that happened to her friend, but the world could. Through her actions, Cassie asks those around her: “what if it happened to you, or someone close to you?”. Her brand of vigilante justice forces people to confront their own apathy, and it’s brutally effective.

From the casting, to the directing, acting, and even shot and score choices, Promising Young Woman is easily the best picture of 2020.

Phoenix Best Picture Runner Up - Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Who Got Snubbed: Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Never Rarely Sometimes Always stars Sidney Flanigan as Autumn, a seventeen-year-old who has just discovered she’s pregnant. Unwilling to turn to her parents, and not ready to be a mother, Autumn decides to get an abortion, but soon learns that doing so as a teenager without anyone finding out is much harder than she’d thought.

Never Rarely is a movie about the process of terminating a pregnancy, and the difficulty of navigating the system to do so. The first crisis centre Autumn visits is a disguised religious organization which immediately shows her an old “evils of abortion” video. Attempts to end her pregnancy herself without professional help are obviously misguided and do nothing but leave her with humiliating bruises. When she finally arrives at a Planned Parenthood several states away that’s willing to help her, she’s met with even more hurdles before her pregnancy can come to an end.

Never Rarely is a political film by the nature of its content, but nothing else. Autumn is simply a girl in a bad situation who needs help. Unfortunately for her, the world around her is uninterested in helping. Luckily, Autumn is joined by her cousin, Skylar (Talia Ryder), who is both ready to do whatever Autumn needs her to, and clever enough to maneuver her way through any situation.

The duo, originally from Pennsylvania, spends most of the film traveling to or from New York at Skylar’s suggestion. Once there, they manage to survive a few days without a place to stay thanks to Skylar’s clever manipulation of Jasper (Theodore Pellerin), a teenage boy they meet on the bus who forms an instant, if unrequited, crush on the two of them.

Though the film is not a documentary, director Eliza Hittman consulted with Planned Parenthood workers while writing the draft, and the result is highly authentic. Ryder and Flanigan give raw, realistic performances, and the exams Autumn is put through are dry, matter-of-fact, and likely identical to the real ones. The film is shot with a healthy amount of film grain and washed-out colours, giving it a gritty look, but one that’s never unpleasant to look at. At Sundance 2020, Never Rarely won a special jury award for Neo-Realism, and it’s easy to see why.

Never Rarely is an important film that tackles a politically volatile subject in a damningly neutral way. Through a simple portrayal of the facts of unwanted teen pregnancy, it exposes many of the ways in which American medical and political systems unfairly disadvantage young women.

Honourable Mentions:
Another Round, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Soul