The testimony of Christine Blasey Ford during Congressional hearings for the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in 2018 was devastating. She was as believable as a victim of violent sexual assault could be — indeed, it would be absurd to argue that she wasn’t telling the truth. Yet right-wingers wanted it not to matter that their nominee was credibly accused, and they prevailed. So much for justice.
Promising Young Woman, an Oscar-nominated movie now available to stream on Amazon Prime ($5.99 as a rental) and other sites, is a fictional dream of revenge based on a past incident similar to the one revealed in Ford’s testimony. It stars Carey Mulligan as Cassandra, the best friend of an assaulted student, who, many years later, pursues a mission of justice against the perpetrators and anyone else who silently abetted them.
Cassie is bitter and withdrawn — working as an L.A. barista and haunted by survivor’s guilt — until she meets Ryan (Bo Burnham), who falls for her, gently woos her, and opens her up emotionally. It’s an idyll of happiness that crashes into fury, as Cassie is once again reminded of the assault and those involved, who have, with impunity, moved on with their lives.
Mulligan, at 36, is a bit too mature to play all-American Cassie, who ought to be a decade younger than that, but she’s game enough to pull it off. The movie is written and directed by Emerald Fennell, the British actor who plays Camilla Parker Bowles in The Crown, and she fashions the material in a darkly comic, picaresque style, with candy-colored production values and mumblecore dialogue. It’s Fennell’s feature debut as writer-director-producer, and she’s Oscar-nominated in all of those capacities — a sign of the times. Mulligan is nominated, too. The movie is snappy and engaging, and clever enough to keep you guessing, but it’s not really award-caliber. Still, that theme of justice, especially at this historical moment, gives it a kind of gravitas that’s worth experiencing.
Another British actor, Riz Ahmed, of Pakistani heritage, is also Oscar-nominated for the film Sound of Metal, which is streaming on Amazon Prime (and free to Prime subscribers). The movie is a character study with a strong arc: Ahmed plays Ruben, a former addict who is saved by his girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke), his partner in an alternative heavy metal band on a tour of small venues in New England. She’s a singer; he’s a drummer. They exist, contentedly, in a vintage Airstream, until Ruben, suddenly, loses most of his hearing.
The rest of the movie chronicles Ruben’s attempts to adapt to and overcome his disability. For a musician in his 30s, in recovery, it’s a formidable challenge. Lou sets him up in a commune-like compound for the deaf and takes off. Ruben fights the inevitable — an embrace of his new condition — then bends and even excels. But he refuses to believe it’s an endgame and ties his hopes to the promise of cochlear implants.
It’s a classic narrative that’s been given a refreshing new approach. Director and co-writer Darius Marder shoots in a largely handheld documentary style with a minimum of exposition. You figure out plot details as they unfold, or, more precisely, as Ruben experiences them. A good deal of care is taken to make the soundtrack subjective — in and out of Ruben’s head — and Ahmed’s remarkable performance takes us deep within Ruben’s conflicted psyche. The effect is subtle and sophisticated yet wrenching. And the movie becomes less about disability than the true value (and limitations) of life.
The documentary Wojnarowicz, about the radical queer artist David Wojnarowiczt (pronounced wuhn-a-ROE-vitch), who was a star of the East Village scene of ’80s New York and who died of AIDS at age 37 in 1992, takes stylistic subjectivity to an ecstatic plane. It’s available for streaming (for $12) via the Waters Edge Cinema at provincetownfilm.org.
Wojnarowicz was horrifically abused as a child by his father, and he hit the streets of New York as a teenage hustler. His talent was recognized by photographer Peter Hujar, who became his lover and lifelong mentor. His multimedia art is filled with dreamlike collage and activist rage. It resembles the graffiti art of Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf, but it is more explicit and real in its politics and imagery. Wojnarowicz was a provocateur who spoke truth to power, in the art establishment and the government.
He was also an avid diarist, writing and recording his thoughts and experiences. Filmmaker Chris McKim does a masterful job of weaving fragments of those tapes and passages, along with archival footage and interviews with friends and family, into a cinematic tapestry of Wojnarowicz’s fast and furious life.
Although the movie follows a straightforward timeline, it moves like a tone poem, or, perhaps, a collage of Wojnarowicz’s own making. It’s mesmerizing and evocative, and genuinely informative. You’ll end up understanding Wojnarowicz as well as he did himself.