Sebastian Stan and Daisy Edgar-Jones in Fresh (2022)
The stomach-churning horror stories that have emerged from dating app experiences are more than enough to fuel the frustration of meeting someone in today’s culture. Visibly frustrated is how Mimi Cave’s directorial feature debut Fresh introduces its protagonist Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones). After a horrible, horrible first date, Noa is fed up with the online dating world…the texting, the awkwardness, the perfect projection. Just when she’s nearly giving up on all the swiping, Noa meets Steve (Sebastian Stan) in the produce section of a grocery store. On the surface, he ticks the seemingly charming boxes. She takes a chance on a refreshing meet-cute and gives him her number. Caught in a whirlwind after their first date, he surprises her with weekend getaway plans at his place…in the middle of nowhere. The obligatory ‘lone car driving down a winding road through cottage country’ horror shot suggests a scenic route to Noa’s impending doom. With a twisted opening credits reveal 30 minutes in, Fresh takes an unsettling turn into queasy and darkly comic territory. All the while, trying to tackle the disturbing subject matter of viewing women as commodities.
Mimi Cave puts her own distinct stamp on Fresh. Weaving together elements of horror, dark comedy, and rom-com, Cave draws interesting analogies from the concept of bad online dating experiences. Not just to point out how awful they can be. But on a more interesting level, to spark conversation about the capitalization of modern dating, and the countless dating apps making a profit from filtering based on what bodies are considered more valuable than others. Noa (Edgar-Jones) feels stuck after years of being alone; at what point does she let go of her hopefulness in finding a connection outside of such a tech-dependent culture? Fresh meets her throwing caution to the wind at the first man who walks into her (real) life, his lack of social media a red flag given how much value is placed on having an online presence. Yet at the same time, it’s considered refreshing and a change of pace for the awful experiences Noa had before. The first 30 minutes of Fresh play as a rom-com with a sinister undertone, and piece by piece, Cave begins to deconstruct this too-good-to-be-true guy who shows up out of nowhere, just when Noa is losing all hope.
Fresh off her remarkable performance as Marianne in Normal People, Daisy Edgar-Jones thankfully has the talent to lift the way her character Noa is written. Jones brings an unwavering commitment to the film’s tone and maintains a strong connection throughout. Wonderful and spirited as she is, especially considering the duality she brings in the second half of Fresh, Noa isn’t as well written a character as hoped for. When the story takes its twists and turns, it’s more apparent not much time was spent getting to know this character during the introductory world-building. The film feeds into a detached portrayal of Noa, where she’s more of a playing piece in a board game than a multi-layered person. Perhaps this shift is Cave’s way of showing a loss of agency in these unfortunate trappings, but even so, there does feel to be a missed opportunity in not spending more time with Noa’s inner voice.
Steve is the more fleshed out character of the two leads, and Sebastian Stan takes up the opportunity with a psychotic performance. He balances on a thin line of awkwardly charming, enough to stand out but not too much to drive people away. This energy he gives to the ‘rom-com’ part of the film never feels innocent. He brings subtle undertones of bullshit to the person he projects to Noa, and then the performance becomes unlike anything the actor has done before: creepy to a hellish degree. Stan has strong chemistry with Edgar-Jones; they leave the viewer tense in anticipation for what the other one does next. Though there’s more material given to the character of Steve, generally the character development in Fresh does feel as though key ingredients are missing. The story incorporates more of Steve’s point of view, the duality of his world, and slowly abandons the duality of Noa’s that the film promisingly starts with. Faring worse, the supporting roles and particularly roles of colour, feel more like tropes than human beings. Especially Noa’s BFF Mollie; Jojo T. Gibbs is excellent but her talent is undermined by stereotypical sidekick writing.
The screenplay by Lauryn Kahn doesn’t have the consistent energy of Mimi Cave’s direction. Cave’s haunting visualization and persistent closeups, often depicting pieces of characters’ faces as though highlighting most valuable parts, bring an interesting style to how scenes are shot. As well the frequent use of red in the production design, lighting, and costume design adds to the hellscape that is the majority of this film. It’s discomforting to watch at times, not just due to some gruesomeness, but also the ‘popified’ sequences that turn an unsettling scene into something out of a crazy 80s music video. The needle drops in Fresh add to Cave’s more campy dark comedy approach. Cave looks for ways to visualize conversation surrounding how women are viewed as pieces of meat, that so much value is placed on women’s appearances. Given how tech-dependent today’s dating culture is, certain body types/specific features are viewed as deal breakers and indicators of how far one advances to a first date, the next stage, and so on. Cave brings a ferociousness to the subject matter in terms of how certain scenes are shot. But the screenplay doesn’t quite match that hunger, leaving a lot of interesting themes to float on the surface but aren’t worked into strong enough allegories to have a more emotional impact.
Spirited, committed performances by Daisy Edgar-Jones and Sebastian Stan make Fresh engaging to watch. Edgar-Jones especially has such an inherently lovable quality, it’s immediate to feel her frustration and stay connected to her at all times. The story itself benefits from knowing as little about the plot points as possible. While its impact doesn’t feel as clever as perhaps intended, it’s a compelling and exciting feature debut for Mimi Cave. Fresh is well-acted and entertaining to watch, though not without leaving a bad taste afterwards when the dating nightmares are over.
Fresh drops March 4th on Disney+.