You can’t blame Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones) for taking her chances with Steve (Sebastian Stan) at a grocery store. She’s survived too many awful dates and gross dick pics; her most recent date, Chad (Brett Dier), is every man’s ignorance and inconsideration rolled into one. She’s tired of the dating game. Most importantly, she’s tired of how men see her. So when Noa bumps into a charismatic, well-presented and polite doctor, she jumps on the opportunity. It’s all a very lovely meet cute. So much so that we wonder whether this is all just too good to be true. Even her best friend Mollie (Jonica T. Gibbs) thinks that.
Steve eventually takes Noa on a romantic getaway. To his house. In the woods. With no Internet. No cell phone signal. And before Noa starts to really notice these red flags, it’s already too late. And THEN the movie starts. Literally, because it is around the 30-40 minute mark when the opening credits come, and Steve reveals his… tastes.
Fresh may play like a classic abduction thriller, but much of it works thanks to thematic relevance. Director Mimi Cave and screenwriter Lauryn Kahn are essentially taking a very real fear – the commoditization of women – and giving it a literal treatment. The thought of women only being seen as a means of consumption for men is terrifying. Combine that with Edgar-Jones, who walks a tricky tightrope between vulnerability and resilience, and Stan, whose calm demeanor is both menacing and hilarious, and a good portion of Fresh is as entertaining as it is stomach-churning.
Somewhere during the second act, however, you might start to wonder just how long this central allegory can hold an entire film. We start jumping to a couple supporting characters, Noa begins to play a long-term psychological game with Steve, and the pacing slows down exponentially. Many of its ideas are not expanded upon and are instead spoken to us again and again.
The narrative is thankfully held afloat by Cave’s insistence in having Edgar-Jones and Stan play off each other even when one is held captive by the other. With a soundtrack full of songs that bring back memories of Promising Young Woman, Fresh smartly combines romantic comedy tropes with body horror. You may find yourself laughing at lines that, given the scene’s context, you should REALLY not be laughing at.
By the time Fresh gets to its finale, it devolves back into your familiar abduction thriller escape sequence. But it’s not so much of the originality that makes it worth seeing, it’s the personality. Cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski, who has worked on Hereditary and Midsommar, successfully captures Cave’s sensibilities in her wides and close-ups. In Steve’s house, Cave plays with color and empty space. With her objects and actors, Cave resorts to close-ups of mouths and fingers that will make you squirm.
Though the execution can be all over the place at times, Fresh shows all the signs of a new voice that’s eager to tell something different on the big screen. Daisy Edgar-Jones is a phenomenal lead, giving you an infinite amount of reasons to root for Noa’s survival. As for Stan, well, Stan seems to take some crazy swings when the films allow him to. It’s a film that manages to be as uncomfortable as it is fun. It’s a crazy, stylish debut from Mimi Cave, and I’d love to get a taste of the next course.
This review is from the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Searchlight Pictures will release Fresh to stream on Hulu March 4.
Photo courtesy of the Sundance Institute