I don’t know what it says about me that I enjoyed Fresh so much.
Perhaps I enjoy having my expectations subverted. Some of my favorite recent films have chipped away at where I thought they were headed and revealed something unexpected and sublime. There’s comfort in predictability, yes, but I’ve come to appreciate a film that pushes me, even if I’m jostled around in the process.
Fresh, which premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, does more than jostle you around. At first glance, the film seems like a standard romantic comedy about the tribulations of mobile app dating. Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones of Normal People fame) is sick of the garbage men she swipes left or right on, encountering one sorry sack after the next. It makes a chance meeting with Steve (Sebastian Stan) in a grocery store look like a godsend. He’s charming, stupidly attractive, awkward in that cute way, self-effacing, and a cosmetic surgeon who knows how people perceive his profession. It seems too good to be true, which makes their whirlwind romance all the more endearing. Surely there will be bumps down the road, but you want them to make it and for Noa to find the true love that has escaped her.
And then the credits roll 30 minutes in, and everything goes straight to the deepest pit of Hell.
As you could guess by now, Fresh is not about Noa’s fantastical romance with a handsome doctor. It is a full-blown nightmare that is far worse than even your most creative scenario. You should go into the film as plot-blind as possible to experience the blood curdling in your veins as you dig deeper into the depravity. And it runs deep, in all its teeth-gnashing, gory glory.
Remarkably, director Mimi Cave keeps the concept from derailing the film completely. She leans into the ridiculousness and embraces the outrageousness while still rendering it somewhat plausible. Cave renders Lauryn Kahn’s strong script with magnificently unhinged energy that is both audacious and wildly enjoyable. Moments of sick irony, pitch-black humor, shocking gore, terrifying thrills, and disturbing sexual tension clash together in an exciting brawl, underscored by a brilliantly bonkers ’80s soundtrack. Despite the chaos, the film rarely tips its hand. It does stretch believability at times, but Cave appears to acknowledge that and does her damndest to keep you hooked regardless. She largely succeeds.
Fresh owes a lot to films like Promising Young Woman, American Psycho, and even Get Out, which grounded their out-there premises in the disturbing realities of the modern world. Cave and Kahn are just as astute in commenting on the perils facing women in the dating pool and the insidious effects of toxic masculinity. You could read the film as one man’s singular mental illness run amok, but it takes a village, or rather a finely-tuned operation with lots of interested parties, to uplift a sociopath. The film understands that, and while it can’t reasonably hold the village accountable, it makes a concerted effort to show why we should.
Daisy Edgar-Jones and Sebastian Stan are sensational at the helm of this twisted tale. Edgar-Jones expands upon the exciting potential she showed in Normal People with a performance of rigid defiance, intelligence, vulnerability, and a dollop of menace that fortifies Noa’s resolve to survive her ordeal. Stan has always been better than his roles, and Fresh finally allows him to fully realize his talents instead of just hinting at them. He is the film’s maniacal force, playing an even more twisted and seductive Patrick Bateman. He’s easy to fall for with his bumbling, falsely modest charisma, and bone-chilling in how he brutally weaponizes it. It’s disturbing and thrilling how Stan draws you in, even in the face of Steve’s insanity. He and Edgar-Jones have unreal romantic and adversarial chemistry together that the film uses every drop of, and yet it’s still not enough.
Fresh is not a film for everyone. I can imagine people getting past the credits and calling it quits halfway through the following scene. (Again, I haven’t parsed out what it means that I enjoyed it so much.) However, Cave cooks up an intoxicating and outrageous experience for the daring viewer, with two unforgettable performances at the center. Whatever taste it leaves in your mouth, you won’t forget it anytime soon.
Fresh is now streaming on Hulu.