Cannibalism, Sebastian Stan, and… dance breaks? Welcome to Sundance’s Fresh, the debut feature film from director Mimi Cave and screenwriter Lauryn Kahn. Part thrilling horror, part dark comedy, Fresh exists in a special space. Commentary on the state of modern dating is cleverly executed, while projecting its own unique sensibilities on the viewer. For the queasy, while Fresh may not be a gorefest, its suggestions and nasty visuals drive the mind to some very dark places. A feast for the senses, a culinary nightmare, a gripping, anxiety-inducing game of cat-and-mouse, and an adorable rom-com—Fresh is all of these things, rolled into one.
Tired of scrolling through the same old dating apps? Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones) certainly is. She has gotten to the point where on a date she simply zones out, staring off into a lobster tank. Noa is just beginning to come to terms with the fact that at the end of the day, she always ends up alone. Innocently browsing the produce aisle at a local supermarket, the most unlikely meet-cute imaginable seems to come about organically: Noa meets Steve (Stan), who instantly begins to flirt with her. Special shout-out to this movie for bringing attention to one of science’s finest delicacies—cotton candy grapes—and Steve’s insistence that Noa tries them, too. At the end of their exchange, Steve asks for Noa’s number, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Noa’s lesbian bestie, Mollie (Jojo T. Gibbs), is supportive of her dating efforts, going so far as to urge her to “get that D.” Red flags are thrown up a little bit when she finds out Steve does not have an Instagram, and that he is taking her away on a random trip somewhere, but Mollie remains hesitantly supportive. Noa still leaves for what Steve quickly reveals as Cottage Grove (which he promises will have a hot tub!), they just have to stop off at his place first on the way. This is when things take a turn for the weird. There is no cell service at his place, despite Steve promising otherwise when they were on their way. Steve’s place seems sophisticated and sleek, the opposite of what Noa has envisioned from knowing him for just a short amount of time. He makes her an old-fashioned “with a twist,” her vision grows foggy, and next thing she knows, Noa awakens chained in the basement and defenseless.
The second the tone shifts to darker intent, the opening credits zoom onto the screen. Pulling away the curtain into the true belly of the beast is reserved as long as possible for maximum effect. The romantic dramedy of the first thirty minutes have merely been a prelude to getting the audience here. Steve, who had promised there would be “no pretending,” is happy to deliver—“I’m gonna sell your meat,” he tells Noa plainly. He wants to keep her fresh for as long as he can; until then, he will cook for her, and treat her right, as long as she doesn’t “act up.”
From here, the dynamic between Noa as she fights for survival and to unravel Steve’s dangerous persona, juxtaposed against Steve as he prances around in high energy while cutting up and tenderizing human flesh meat is rapturous. Each interaction between the couple is almost a reversal of how their relationship existed prior. A previous dancing scene leaves room for another. Noa seems to be getting a form of special treatment from Steve. Sebastian Stan leans into the Patrick Bateman in American Psycho of his morally corrupt character, and Daisy Edgar-Jones plays Noa as passionate, determined, and intelligent. The rom-com style is flipped on its head to make room for this twisted tale of love gone wrong.
The tension and fear builds to exciting crescendos of violence and terror. A soundtrack full of 80s deep cut bangers compliments the film, and adds to the rewatch factor. With characters this richly sketched and a constantly-shifting atmosphere, Fresh feels one step ahead of the audience as it plots out Noa’s next steps. By centering the action entirely around Noa’s experience, the audience thusly sees Steve through her eyes only. It flips the idea of a Prince Charming on its toes, making one question the level of trust given towards others. Usually when someone seems just a little bit too perfect, they probably are.
Fresh is a deliciously evil movie with an absolutely bonkers performance from Sebastian Stan. Chilling elements of body horror pepper the story with palpable tension and dread. A visceral, intense final act proves to be a satisfying and outrageous capper of the nearly two-hour long roller coaster ride. An injection of humor (even in the darker sequences) saves Fresh from growing stale. From merely two viewings, this is already one of my favorite movies of 2022.
Fresh brought an exquisite taste to audiences at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, and comes to Hulu on Friday, March 4th.