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Sundance 2022 – ‘Fresh’ is a deliciously delirious meat-cute horror with just a dash of pulp

Sebastian Stan and Daisy Edgar-Jones star in this depraved, metaphorical horrror comedy, which literalizes the anxieties of modern dating.

As a perpetually single person, I can say from experience that dating can feel like a carnivorous endeavor. Compatibility seems incomputable, and it can be difficult to put yourself out there and hope that you find someone that connects with you and makes you feel full. And certainly, I can’t imagine what it must be like on the opposite side of the coin. Modern dating is a challenging and uncertain game, and it’s hard to know who you can trust in the internet age.

Performative culture and the time of catfishing can make it hard to know who you’re set to meet, and if you’re getting the full picture when you agree to go out with a complete stranger. Perceptions can be deceiving and devastating, but it’s hard not to crave affection. Sharing a meal with the wrong person is too often a common occurrence, and you can often bite off more than you can chew in this delicate, delectable dance. 

So here comes Fresh, the feature directorial debut of Mimi Cave, which literalizes the dangers and anxieties of modern dating in the era of Instagram and dating apps. Centered around Noa (Normal People’s Daisy Edgar-Jones), a lonesome young woman trying to find her way in a land of dirty, despicable dudes, with each potential suitor seemingly worse than the last. That is, until a chance encounter at the supermarket result in an agreeable conversation with a charming and well-off plastic surgeon named Steve (Sebastian Stan), resulting in a series of flings that seem a little too good to be true.

Did Noa really find the perfect man? Has she finally figured it all out? If the opening paragraph gives the proper indiction, things aren’t exactly going to work out. Shortly after Noa and Steve head up to a reclusive cabin far away from cell phone service, Noa’s good fortunes quickly run out and Steve’s true colors begin to shine. As it turns out, Steve’s taste in women is a little more grotesque than Noa originally thought, and his shining white teeth might hide a pair of metaphorical fangs. The truth about Steve’s intentions will prove hard to swallow. 

In a darkly entertaining twist on the Beauty and the Beast story archetype, by way of a strange contamination of Get Out, Tusk, and Silence of the Lambs, Cave and screenwriter Lauryn Kahn play up the twisted, bloody delights of this depraved, highly-metaphorical horror-comedy. Though it doesn’t compare to the likes of Julia Ducournau’s exquisite Raw, this unapologetically fierce fable doesn’t lack in goofy thrills and any sort of limb-related spills. Silly and sophisticated in equal measure, Fresh is more of a flash in the pan than a full-course meal, but the central concept stays so appealingly wacky on its own terms that it’s rarely unappetizing. 

And the large majority of Fresh’s appeal lies in the hands of this first-time filmmaker. Bouncing with creative energy, a crooked smile, and delirious rage, Cave carries a confidence and tonal precision that showcases a new filmmaker with strong potential, particularly as she continues to venture out and explore her creative avenues. She’s also aided by a pair of pulpy performances from our two leads, notably with Stan having great fun playing against his Marvel-friendly image. 

Of all the MCU alums, alongside Benedict Cumberbatch, Scarlett Johannson, and Mark Ruffalo, Stan is the performer who appears to be making the boldest, most audacious choices with all of his newfound marketability. Outstanding lead and supporting performances in films like I, Tonya, The Devil All the Time, and last year’s underrated Monday showcase a performer who wants to push himself and go against expectations, following the juicy roles that help to demonstrate his unsuspecting versatility and cunning dexterity. It’s commendable, certainly, and it makes it easy to look forward to whatever he has coming up, including his take on Tommy Lee in next month’s Pam & Tommy. This guy is really going for it, and I have nothing but respect for what he’s doing.

Likewise, Fresh proves to be an appealing cinematic turn for Edgar-Jones, showcasing maturity and prowess that goes beyond her years and providing an assured naturalism that goes quite a long way in a heightened movie such as this one. She carries Fresh alongside Stan’s gorging scene-chewing, properly bringing a ying to Stan’s yang — or the salt to his pepper. And Fresh is further elevated by sharp cinematography from rising talent Pawel Pogorzelski (Hereditary) and some well-sliced editing from Martin Pensa (Wild), both of which help the movie find its offbeat groove. Without them, it’s hard to know how well a film like this would go down, though everyone is seemingly on the right wavelength, thankfully. 

Whether Fresh does falter, however, is with Kahn’s screenplay. Though the concept keeps it consistently and impressively edible, it favors a predictable, conventional structure that isn’t as shocking as its coy log-line suggests. Once you get to the core concept, Fresh doesn’t take too many risks, which might arguably make it the most conventional cannibal comedy in movie history. That’s no small feat, though you can’t help but wonder what it would be if it challenged itself more — especially when it comes to the movie’s probing, modern commentary.

What it has to say about dating, and the technology-addled hellscape we’re trapped in today doesn’t dig too far beyond the surface, favoring frothy entertainment value over intellectual insight. The satire becomes too broad, predictable, and content for its own good. It could afford to bite harder, especially with all the confidence that it wields in frequent, irreverent measure otherwise. Suffice to say, Fresh could be more…fleshed out. But in many other ways, this movie lives up to its name enough to make it a satisfying treat and a great pleasure to ravenously eat.

Fresh is a Midnight Premiere for the Sundance Film Festival (2022). You can learn more about the film here.

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