Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones) is around halfway through her first date with Steve (Sebastian Stan) when she tells him that she hates “this”—“this” meaning dating. “FRESH” opens with a portrait of just how Noa’s love life is going, and it isn’t going well. She aimlessly swipes through dating apps, and a date she goes on with a man she matched with online goes from bad to worse after he comments on how she should dress more femininely. So when she has a chance encounter with the charming and funny Steve in the produce section at the grocery store and he asks for her number, she gives it to him. “I didn’t think people met people in real life anymore,” Noa later tells her best friend Millie (Jonica T. Gibbs).
“FRESH” doesn’t drop its title and opening credits until almost 40 minutes into the movie, at which point it becomes clear that what starts off as a semi-comedic skewering of the modern dating scene has turned into a single woman’s worst nightmare. Almost any viewer, particularly those moderately familiar with the premise of “FRESH,” will be able to spot the various red flags Steve is throwing from the get-go, so while the situation is unnerving, it feels more frustrating than scary. Steve’s true motives are horrifying, and encompass the desire of many men to prey on women beyond just himself (in this case, men exert control by taking literal pieces out of the women), but it rarely feels like the body horror element, though wild, is pushed as far as it could be. Elements of “FRESH” are certainly stomach-churning, but it feels like every time the film approaches the precipice of a potentially horrific scene, it backs away.
Even so, the shock value of the premise takes away some from the characters. Edgar-Jones is relatable and then resourceful as our protagonist, but we don’t know much about Noa beyond her current situation. Gibbs’ Millie comes dangerously close to feeling like the token Black friend, but she is both funny and brave and ends up playing an important role in the narrative—even if her actions in that role still revolve around the white lead. “FRESH” is really a showcase for Stan. His natural charisma effortlessly transitions to cold menace, and it looks like he’s having a great time chewing on the scenery and being bad. A peek at his home life doesn’t teach us much more about his motivations, but it does reveal just how evil he truly is.
“FRESH” is the debut feature for director Mimi Cave, featuring a screenplay by Lauryn Kahn, and it’s a memorable first feature at that. But “FRESH” is far from perfect, and the longer it goes on, the more meandering it feels, especially after a few other characters get involved in the plot. “FRESH” is stylish in its presentation and always entertaining, and Cave’s voice as a filmmaker is strong right off the bat. But despite the characters’ horrifying plight and the climax’s girl power moments, it feels like it’s missing something—an emotional tension that would make it feel truly scary, and help us care about these characters further.
“Fresh” will be released on Hulu on March 4. Runtime: 114 minutes. Find out more information about the Sundance Film Festival here.