Dating is a goddamn horror show…
…Not to put it so ineloquently, but it is. Yes, it can be exciting. Yes, it’s a necessary evil to meet that special person we all hope we find in our lives. But the actual process of dating? Trash. Awful. The absolute worst. Everyone has their bad date story. But I bet—or very much hope—yours isn’t nearly as awful as Noa’s (Daisy Edgar-Jones) in director Mimi Cave’s debut shocker, Fresh, which just had its world premiere at Sundance.
Written by Lauryn Kahn, Fresh introduces us to Noa, a lonely woman in self-denial of said loneliness. After a series of dates gone wrong, Noa meets Steve (Sebastian Stan) at, of all places, the fresh food section in the grocery store. Handsome, charming, and not a complete and utter dickhead, he seems like the perfect guy after having met that incredibly low bar. But when Noa decides to go on a trip with Steve, she discovers he wants more from her than a nice, romantic weekend.
Fresh is destined to be one of the most shocking films of the year.
What’s not so shocking is the sort of bullshit that we see Noa putting up with when we first meet her. She’s on a date with some bum who opens the conversation by talking about hot sauce, indigestion, and how “the women in our parent’s generation…were more into femininity.” Oh, the feminine urge to rip this guy’s head off. Did I mention he also makes her pay for dinner? It’s no wonder that Noa hates dating, and that her best friend Molly (Jojo T. Gibbs, who brings an upbeat energy to the film), insists to Noa “you do not need a man” to be happy.
Damn right, Molly! The love between these characters is infectious. You root hard for them. They’re proof you don’t need to be in a relationship to have a life that feels fulfilling.
But the problem isn’t just that too many men kind of suck. Fresh rips open the veins of toxic masculinity and spills its blood on the floor. Too many men react violently to being told “no” by a woman, and if you are someone who’s never had to face that, Fresh drops us right into the shoes of Noa and dealing with her shitty date when she does exactly that. Cave’s film is a ruthless commentary on the nature of men who take and take and take. Everywhere Noa goes, we see things through her eyes, where the women are nice enough, but the men look strange, wanting, and are giving her even stranger looks. Noa lives an all too real reality where she’s made to feel uncomfortable by the very presence of men and their desires.
It’s astonishing that this is Cave’s debut feature. Fresh instantly seduces the viewer with Alex Somers’ hypnotic score and an approach from Cave that is beautifully elegant. Once the film moves past the unpleasant opening, Noa encounters Steve and we’re drawn into a dreamy world where the subtle bits of dread presented early on are quickly forgotten. At first, watching Fresh is like living in a Norah Jones song. The chemistry between Stan and Edgar-Jones is as endearing as it gets, both taking themselves to raw, primal levels in performances that are unforgettable. Every scene glows with a soft, sensual lighting. Intimate close-ups of eyes, mouths and hands pull the viewer close. Cave has a rare confidence for a feature debut, with a directing style like a filmic siren. You know the horror is coming, but it’s all too beautiful to look away.
Except you might want to once the jaw-dropping terror begins. Fresh takes it’s time before plunging you into treacherous depths of horror, with the title sequence finally arriving thirty minutes in to signal we’re in for a whole different experience than what we’ve been watching. You will be hard-pressed to find anything in 2022 that is as sick, wild and twisted as this stomach-churning nightmare from the minds of Cave and Kahn. It’s kind of like Hannibal Lecter, classy and utterly ghoulish all at once. For every moment in Fresh that is warm and seductive, there is another that ties your stomach into knots and dares you to even think of food. While there is gore, Cave doesn’t shoot for the cheap gross-out. All of the terror in Fresh comes from the dread of the situation, a dread that grows more powerful with every stunning twist and turn. By the time the end credits rolled, you could stick a fork in me, because I was well past done. Nerves frayed. Any thought of eating anything after, hopeless.
Fresh reminds me of films along the lines of Richard Shepard’s The Perfection or Julia Ducournau’s Raw. Grotesque, ugly stories that devour you by drawing you in with an elegance that hides the terror until your waist deep in its jaws and it’s too late to escape. Not that you’d want to run from this film, though. It’s too damn hypnotic for you want to do anything else but watch. Cave conducts a pitch-perfect symphony of suspense. Plus, Jennifer Morden’s gorgeous production design is on another level.
With her first feature, Cave has proven herself to be a force to be reckoned with. The third act gets a little messy, but Fresh is a slice of decadent terror that is satisfying on every level. More importantly, it’s a reminder that being in a relationship is not what makes us whole. Love yourself, because you’re great the way you are, no matter what those jerks say.
Make a hot date with Fresh, instead. It might be just what you’re looking for.
Fresh comes to Hulu on March 4th from Searchlight.
By Matt Konopka