Film Review – Fresh
***Warning: This review contains minor spoilers***
Dating can be a stressful and embarrassing undertaking. There are the mundane, recycled questions (“Where are you from?” “What do you like to do?” “What are you into?”), dinners populated with eating and awkward silences, and the inevitable moment at the end of the night when you decide whether it was all worth it or just a waste of time. I could only imagine what it’s like to date in the age of social media, where one can meet a stranger online only to realize that they’re a creep in real life. For those of you out there fighting the good fight in the name of romance, best of luck to you – I hope you find what you are looking for.
Sadly, for the protagonist of Fresh (2022), their search for long lasting love turns out to be their worst possible nightmare. Written by Lauryn Kahn and directed by Mimi Cave (in her feature length debut), this is a dark and gruesome horror film that isn’t afraid to explore some grisly material. Those that have weak stomachs should probably refrain from eating anything before watching this. Yet it is also oddly funny. It covers important social issues without sacrificing its entertainment value. It has all the elements of a bloody thriller while also being humorous enough that it isn’t a total decent into nihilism. Our stomachs may churn watching this, but at least we’ll get a laugh at the same time.
Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones) has been unlucky in the dating game. Her last few dates have been with jerks. However, just as Noa has given up on the idea of being with someone, she meets hunky doctor Steve (Sebastian Stan) at a grocery store. You know you have chemistry with someone when your Meet-Cute happens at the veggie isle between the asparagus and green beans. Noa and Steve hit it off right away, despite Noa’s best friend Mollie (Jojo T. Gibbs) questioning if this is all happening too fast. Soon, the two are planning an impromptu weekend getaway far outside of the city…and away from everybody else.
Sadly, this blossoming relationship quickly turns south once we discover Steve’s true intentions. The narrative then becomes a battle of survival as Noa and Steve try getting the upper hand on one another. Cave’s direction (along with Pawel Pogorzelski’s cinematography and Martin Pensa’s editing) unearth the terror in a blunt fashion. When Noa realizes what is happening, the shock on her face amplifies the tension. The stakes are laid out clearly and directly, with a passiveness that is alarming and a little goofy at the same time. In a movie that relies heavily on its surprises, I’m trying to keep the specifics as vague as possible. Imagine the meat-centric horror of Raw (2016) combined with the extremities of American Psycho (2000) and you get near to what the production is trying to do here.
Make no mistake about it: Things get pretty wild as the story progresses. Much of this is due to Cave’s ability to suggest the violence as opposed to simply showing it. She does a remarkable job of adding visual details that hint toward larger, dangerous implications. A slab of meat on a cutting board, a close up of a person’s mouth as they eat a meal, missing limbs, a phone sitting on a shelf, etc. All these bits have little impact on their own, but the way in which Cave juxtaposes the images allows us to fill in the blanks. She gives us the opportunity to engage with the material rather than simply showing it to us, which makes the effect all the staggering. We realize that a plate of spaghetti and meatballs is not just a plate of spaghetti and meatballs, but the indication that something awful has happened.
Daisy Edgar-Jones and Sebastian Stan both deliver exceptional performances. They must navigate a wide range of moods and emotions directly involving each other. They have the kind of on-screen charisma that could spark a relationship only for everything to fall apart. Their roles require a tremendous amount of guile and physicality. Yes, there are moments where their dynamic becomes brutal, but I was more impressed in the sequences where they simply converse with one another. Notice how the two glance at each other and their subtle body language – what they say may not always be what they are thinking. Part of the fun of watching the two interact is trying to decipher what their real motivations are. Is it all just a ruse, or is there a level of honesty bubbling to the surface? What they are required to do is tricky (especially for Stan, whose posturing and expressions border on parody), but Edgar-Jones and Stan work in tandem, operating on equal level. One performance does not work without the other.
Fresh stumbles at the finish line, tying up all the loose threads a little too conveniently. All the major players converge, with each piece getting checked off one by one. The ending didn’t feel like a natural stopping point as opposed to the narrative not knowing where else to go. But that’s a minor issue in what is overall a strong movie. Mimi Cave has found a distinct voice with her debut feature, delivering a film with plenty of style and energy. The fact that it also has something smart to say is just the cherry on top. I look forward to seeing what she has in store for us next.