Movies · Reviews

‘Fresh’ is a Shocking Trojan Horse That Commits to the Bit

It may not work as social commentary horror, but Mimi Cave’s feature debut is still an over-the-top delight for anyone willing to roll with its surprisingly dark punches.
Fresh Sundance Sebastian Stan
Searchlight Pictures
By  · Published on January 25th, 2022

This review of Fresh is part of our 2022 Sundance Film Festival coverage. For more reviews and essays, visit our Sundance tab.

The opening credits for Fresh begin more than 30 minutes into the movie. They arrive, like the film’s best surprises, with slick confidence and sickening glee. Before this point, it has been a film about a woman named Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones), who is burnt out on dating apps before meeting Steve (Sebastian Stan), organically, in the produce aisle of the grocery store. After the opening credits roll, Fresh reveals its true form: a bloody, quasi-campy, balls-to-the-wall horror movie anchored by all-in performances.

After a meet-cute and a successful first date, Noa and Steve fall into a fast-moving romance. Noa’s best friend, Molly (Jojo T. Gibbs), points out red flags in their relationship, but they seem more like her own personal preferences, and Noa shrugs them off. Soon, the couple makes a plan to escape for the weekend, to a surprise destination chosen by Steve. Enter: the changeover that marks the end of the first act. From here on out, Fresh is something else entirely.

The only way Fresh doesn’t quite connect is as a slice of social commentary. Its Sundance program description calls it “a penetrating thriller about the perils women face on the modern dating scene,” but the movie’s attempts to call direct attention to the dangers of dating are its least effective element. Fresh works best when it revels in its seedy twists, not when it attempts to break them down and assign them larger significance. I could go the rest of my life without seeing keys between knuckles as a passive signifier of the dangers of a world where many men want women dead. It turns out, Steve doesn’t want Noa dead, though. He wants her to exist in a very specific, gut-churning way that propels the ever-escalating back half of the film.

Despite its bumpy attempts at social commentary, Fresh still succeeds by maintaining a darkly funny current of self-awareness that Stan and Edgar-Jones tap into with aplomb. Stan (breaking out of his Marvel mold this month with both this performance and the Hulu series Pam & Tommy) shifts from relaxed to sinister in a heartbeat. He embodies a challenging role with a sense of confident delusion, balancing the relaxed romantic hero persona Steve first presented with his ruthless, indulgent private self. Edgar-Jones is a dark-eyed revelation as Noa, a woman whose plaintive discomfort reads as cool beauty to the men around her. Her performance is nimble and fierce, elevating Fresh beyond the B-movie status it may have been relegated to in the hands of lesser actors.

Portions of Fresh call to mind a half-dozen other projects in recent years, but mentioning any of them here would give away the gift inside its Trojan Horse of a narrative. First-time filmmaker Mimi Cave directs from a script by Lauryn Kahn. It’s the movie’s gnarly details and savage sensibilities, and the relish with which it presents them, that makes it feel like something new. Cave and Kahn have fun corrupting basic comforts — like pasta or The Golden Girls theme song — by recontextualizing them in upsetting ways.

The movie bears some of the signs of a first-time filmmaker, albeit a bold one. A few supporting cast members give distractingly unnatural performances, and almost anyone will be able to spot signs early on that something is amiss in its central relationship. For every decision that doesn’t quite work, though, there are several that do. The depths of the movie’s mythology are revealed in a gleefully messed-up sequence that sees Steve dance around his upscale cabin home. In it, he commits taboo acts with loving attention to detail, as if he’s putting together a craft to sell on Etsy. Fresh gets creative in a lot of ways, from its disturbing and sometimes silly gore to its satisfying soundtrack.

This is a movie that is stomach-churning and propulsive, and it arrives ready to shock. It may not be the high-minded social horror it thinks it is, but its two enthusiastic lead performances keep it a cut above similar fare. Above all else, I came away from Fresh acutely aware of how much horror feels boring by comparison. It’s a genre jolt that will wake you up and make you pay attention, from its soft beginning to its bloody end.

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Valerie Ettenhofer is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, TV-lover, and mac and cheese enthusiast. As a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects, she covers television through regular reviews and her recurring column, Episodes. She is also a voting member of the Critics Choice Association's television and documentary branches. Twitter: @aandeandval (She/her)