Directed by Mimi Cave.
Starring Daisy Edgar-Jones, Sebastian Stan, Jojo T. Gibbs, Charlotte Le Bon, Andrea Bang, and Dayo Okeniyi.
The horrors of modern dating seen through one young woman’s defiant battle to survive her new boyfriend’s unusual appetites.
The horror genre has historically been a potent outlet for filmmakers to express both their own and general society’s fears, something debuting director Mimi Cave is acutely aware of in her promising satirical horror romp Fresh.
Produced by Adam McKay and acquired by Searchlight Pictures mere days before its Sundance premiere, this is a broadly scattershot but relatively entertaining exercise that can’t help but feel weirdly ordinary despite its twisted, transgressive subject matter.
Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones) is no fan of dating, nor of modern society’s expectation that you use an app for it. Amid a slew of terrible dates, she rubbishes the notion of “true love” and is resigned to being single forever, until a chance encounter with a ridiculously handsome stranger, Steve (Sebastian Stan), changes her mind.
After striking up a quick rapport, she gives Steve – who is a reconstructive surgeon, by the way – her phone number, and a whirlwind relationship soon blooms. But when they set off on a weekend getaway together, unsettling truths come bubbling to the surface, as Noa discovers that Steve isn’t quite the catch she thought.
Fresh is a difficult film to discuss in detail given that much of its story is hinged on bamboozling the audience with the unexpected, and so this review will attempt to remain as vague as possible. What can be said without giving anything away is that screenwriter Lauryn Kahn has mounted her horror as a righteous indictment of the grim contemporary dating scene; a meat market of-sorts where toxicity is rife and the mere process of finding even a basically tolerable partner threatens to erode one’s sense of self in the most literal way.
To begin with, Steve is an almost parodically appealing romantic prospect; he’s absurdly good-looking, has a great job that services the community, and he and Noa are immediately sexually compatible as a fumbling hook-up confirms.
And yet, Cave makes pains to illustrate that much of Steve’s early behaviour would be deemed creepy were he not so intoxicatingly attractive and charming, with Noa acutely aware herself that she’s letting her guard down more than she probably should. Steve is playing the game to perfection after all, ingratiating himself to Noa with psychological tricks that seem obvious to us, the outside observer, before bringing her to his lavish home where there’s a suspicious lack of phone service.
We know the shoe’s going to drop, because Steve is quite literally too good to be true, but in that enigmatic opening act we’re never sure just how far Cave is going to take it. The end of the first reel signals both a tenor change and the belated arrival of the movie’s kaleidoscopic opening titles, after which Cave largely plays an open hand with audiences rather than keep them in suspense any longer.
Without going into the particulars, the scenario that unfolds takes its opening critique of contemporary romance to literally horrific levels, as Noa is forced to reckon with the deeply troubling situation she’s found herself in. After a sturdy first act, however, Fresh seems to become less sure of itself, failing to fully exploit its blackly comedic potential nor delivering the full-tilt visceral goods as a horror jaunt.
Despite the inherently nauseating nature of what occurs, Cave doesn’t really convey the full disturbing thrall of what Noa is put through, the end result feeling like a tidied-up riff on a film that might’ve been more effective with a lower budget and without a major star. There’s the feeling that Cave is holding back for some reason, refusing to go to the setup’s darkest possible recesses. It feels a bit exploitation-lite, ultimately, lacking the schlocky follow-through that might’ve helped it stick to the ribs.
The third act sees the central conflict take an intriguing turn for a time, though the meandering pace and introduction of a few subplots too many causes the finale to resolve them in a clumsy rush. It’s a scattered send-off that struggles to brings its characters, ideas, even its mythology together in a totally cohesive way. It’s an interesting world for sure, but we don’t get nearly enough a taste of it.
What keeps Fresh never less than decently watchable – and often much more than that – is the game performances of its two leads. Rising Brit actress Daisy Edgar-Jones gives a potentially star-making performance as Noa, pinballed between poles of overwhelming cynicism at the state of the dating pool, excitement at Steve’s arrival into her life, and then abject terror once the truth is laid bare.
But understandably most eyes will be trained firmly on Sebastian Stan, whose status as an effortlessly likeable MCU star unavoidably informs his casting and the effectiveness of his performance. Stan is perfectly cast as the impossibly appealing seducer, putting his easy eyes and easier smile to decidedly more discomforting use – to ensnare not only Noa but the audience also. Stan commits whole-heartedly to his character’s fucked-up predilections, occasionally wringing unexpected laughs out of the situation by treating his behaviour like it’s the most casual thing in the world.
In the supporting stakes, we also have Jojo T. Gibbs as Noa’s best friend Mollie, a genre-savvy Black woman who is immediately suspicious of Noa’s new beau and spends much of the film investigating his, well, everything. Gibbs is a lot of fun in the role, even if her subplot is assuredly the aspect which could most evidently have been trimmed down.
At 114 minutes, Fresh certainly could’ve used some surgical nips and tucks of its own, with a majorly saggy mid-section constantly ripping the focus away from Noa to Mollie, which while amusing often feels like playing for time. Keeping the camera trained on Noa might’ve heightened the claustrophobia, but instead by roping in other subplots and characters, it ends up rather trundling to its conclusion.
Again, though, the operating issue is that it just doesn’t bite quite hard enough to deliver on its promises; the satire is fairly surface-level re: the feeding frenzy of dating, and the horror aspects feel relatively derivative while too often denying audiences the expected grisliness. There’s just enough of a slow-bled mystery here to keep things interesting, though the two central performers are really working overtime to prop it up.
Technicals are meanwhile rock solid; master genre DP Pawel Pogorzelski knows how to light and frame an image for maximal discomfort, and production designer Jennifer Morden deserves a world of credit for discovering Steve’s offputtingly sterile fortress of a home within which most of the story takes place. The soundtrack is meanwhile scored to a bevy of classic pop licks, though mercifully stops just shy of going full jukebox musical.
If overly obvious as satire, surprisingly tame as horror, and a solid 20 minutes too long, Fresh is held aloft by committed performances from Daisy Edgar-Jones and Sebastian Stan.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.