No matter how many digital barricades we place between us – social media, dating services, live webcams – there is no avoiding the moment when you must open the door and let someone inside. For single women, that moment has always been a dangerous proposition.
Mimi Cave gives us a fresh take on relationship horror in her impressive directorial debut, Fresh. Themes of consumption, possession, and loneliness swirl into a blood-soaked fairy tale gone terrifyingly wrong. Fresh is smart, transgressive, stomach-churning fun that also offers a few sly insights into the modern dating game.
“I’ve been alone so long, I’m actually pretty good at it,” our young heroine Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones) confides to her prospective new beau, Steve (a refreshingly un-superhero turn from Sebastian Stan). Cut to: Noa and Steve sleeping together and then hastily absconding to a “surprise” vacation destination of Steve’s choosing. Noa’s no-nonsense BFF Mollie (Jojo T. Gibbs) suspects something right away, hilariously accusing Noa of being “dick-matized”. But Noa is an independent 20-something woman who can Google with the best of them, and dammit, she deserves happiness, too! So off they go!
The first chunk of Fresh plays out like a sendup of indie relationship films. There’s the adorable late-night supermarket meeting between Noa and Steve, plenty of profound college-dormitory-style banter, and even some impromptu dancing! And then right around the 40-minute mark, something happens… something very terrible.
To spoil the secrets of Fresh would be a cinematic crime. It reveals itself first with the subtlety of a feather before slamming you in the face with a sledgehammer (or perhaps a shovel). It’s a startling tonal shift that works completely because Cave and her screenwriter (Lauryn Kahn) took the time to earn our investment in these characters.
Almost everything from this point forward is disturbing. Cave fosters a sense of unease with her vertiginous, close-up lensing of faces and body parts; the throbbing vein in someone’s neck, a flushed cheek, a chewing mouth overflowing with food. It’s a stylistic choice that dovetails perfectly with themes of dehumanization and, ultimately, possession. Just what does Steve value in Noa? For that matter, what does any man value in a woman? These are questions that bear constant re-evaluation as Fresh progresses toward its ultra-violent conclusion.
Unfortunately, Fresh falters in the final act, relying upon horror clichés to unnecessarily dial up the suspense. It’s a disappointing misstep for such an ingenious construction. There is also the matter of an unsatisfying subplot that never meshes with the film’s primary story. But these are minor quibbles for a film that flirts with artistic greatness.
Cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski (Hereditary, Midsommar) and production designer Jennifer Morden play a prominent role in defining that artistry. Every painting, every piece of furniture, every kitchen utensil is meticulously selected for maximum discomfort. Even more effective is the soundtrack, which makes the most disconcerting use of ‘80s pop music classics since American Psycho. Indeed, Fresh owes a great deal to Mary Harron’s 2000 classic, both stylistically and thematically.
Director Cave has likely carved a place in Sundance Film Festival lore with this audacious debut. Thanks to her bold visual storytelling and stellar lead performances from Sebastian Stan and Daisy Edgar-Jones, Fresh seems poised to earn cult status. It also reiterates what a powerful venue horror can be for tackling important social issues. Mostly, though, it’s just good creepy fun.