This review of “Fresh” was originally posted Jan. 21, 2022 from the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.
It takes a long, long time before the so-called “opening credits” roll in Mimi Cave’s decadently horrifying directorial debut “Fresh.” That’s probably because, as wonderful as the film’s first act is, we ain’t seen nothing yet.
“Fresh” begins with the latest in what seems to be a long, long line of crappy online dates for Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones, “Normal People”). She hates the modern courtship process — and with good cause — but, dang it, it’s the 21st century, and her options seem limited to swiping right and hoping for the best or a lifetime of lousy loneliness.
So it’s something of a shock when she actually meets a real live person, in a real-life grocery store, who shows an interest her and doesn’t seem like a total sack of crap. Steve has great taste in produce (yes, cotton candy grapes are real, and they’re fantastic). He’s also got a great sense of humor, and he’s a doctor, and he looks just like Sebastian Stan, so he seems like he might be a winner. He even eschews social media because it’s gauche and he’s oh so romantic and he wants to take Noa on a surprise weekend getaway to a mystery location and…
Whoa, red flags. Red flags! Noa’s best friend Mollie (Jojo T. Gibbs, “Twenties”) almost derails this whole movie when she points out that, in this day and age, not having any way to track a person’s identity online, coupled with a sudden desire to move to what can only be called “a second location,” is extremely suspicious.
But Edgar-Jones and Stan have such palpable, effortless chemistry, and the nimble script by Lauryn Kahn (“Ibiza”) keeps the warning signs tucked so snuggly beneath a weighted blanket of Noa’s relief from humdrum contemporary dating anxiety, that we don’t look down on her for taking a chance and going away with Steve after all. Maybe everything will be fine! Sure, there’s no cell phone service, but — uh-oh, that’s actually never a good sign.
What happens next may be slightly predictable, if only because we’re in a horror movie, but like James Wan’s awe-inspiring “Malignant,” the real surprise doesn’t stem from the plot. Presentation is what counts. Yes, it’s grotesque. Yes, it’ll make your stomach churn. But best/worst of all, Mimi Cave will not stop trying to recapture the early, whimsical romantic connection between Noa and Steve, to the point that the true discomfort comes not from any mangled flesh but from the film’s continued attempts to make nice with a flesh-mangler.
Structurally, “Fresh” has a lot in common with abduction films like “Misery” and “The Human Centipede,” where the villain’s bizarre obsessions drive the story, and mutilation is a natural (albeit terrifying) extension of their pathology. And like many other films which share some DNA with “Fresh,” it’s the villain who takes center stage. We haven’t seen Sebastian Stan operate on this level of camp showmanship since the climax of Renny Harlin’s “The Covenant.” He’s appealing when he takes himself seriously. He’s a movie star when he gets to have fun.
Daisy Edgar-Jones has a more complex assignment. She must endure grotesque indignities while, in defiance of all her better instincts, making nice with a total creep. And the creep is no fool. The only way to convince him that she’s into his bizarre fetishes is to be so convincing that the audience starts to wonder if maybe, just maybe, she actually is. That’s another level of gruesome that “Fresh” throws on the tower of terrors, just in case anyone thought it wasn’t high enough.
Cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski should be a household name by now for horror enthusiasts, having developed morbidly absorbing yet dynamically opposed visions for both “Hereditary” and “Midsommar.” His work in “Fresh” captures the intimate appeal of a romantic comedy, the stark isolation of a kidnapping thriller, and a fantastical representation of gore that tries, in a truly unnerving way, to make it look as appealing as Steve thinks it is. There’s nothing more gross than gross-with-a-garnish.
“Fresh” raises quite a few questions it never bothers to answer, unless of course a sequel is in the cards, but its power doesn’t come from its plot. Like the best first dates, and the best midnight movies, it all comes down to personality. Mimi Cave knows how to captivate and how to repulse, usually at the same time. She knows how to make us laugh and hate ourselves for laughing. “Fresh” is a breakneck emotional roller coaster, and like many roller coasters, it’ll also make your stomach churn.
“Fresh” is now streaming on Hulu.