By Greg Carlson
Director Mimi Cave’s feature debut “Fresh” was one of the highlights of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival’s Midnight section. Working from a wicked screenplay by Lauryn Kahn, Cave’s jet-black satire lands exclusively on Hulu starting March 4. Most definitely not for the faint of heart, “Fresh” joins a handful of classic cannibal films that tiptoe along the edges of the comic and the horrific. Echoes of wide-ranging precedents like “Eating Raoul,” “Parents,” “The Silence of the Lambs,” and “Raw” place “Fresh” in solid company, but Cave makes her own mark on the subgenre, using healthy doses of gore and mayhem to challenge the disappointments of our technology-driven dating culture and the shabby treatment of women by men.
“Fresh” is potent enough to operate effectively outside of metaphor, but essentially every reviewer who tackled the title following its January 30 Sundance premiere commented on the ways in which Cave addresses the downside of the female experience in an app-based hookup scene that emphasizes sexual availability and the superficialities of physical appearance. Swiping left or right based on split-second impulses, Cave asserts, contributes to the alienation. The very nature of online “romance” can perpetuate a kind of contractual arrangement suggesting a marketplace devoid of genuine human connection.
The movie’s opening section, in which protagonist Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones) suffers through a ghastly encounter with clueless chauvinist Chad (Brett Dier), could readily work as a hilarious standalone short film. A self-absorbed bore who insults Noa to her face multiple times before insisting they split the check, Chad appears to confirm Noa’s fears that decent men are as scarce as unicorns. Later, in a stroke of real life luck that seems too good to be true, Noa encounters charming stranger Steve (Sebastian Stan) while shopping in a grocery store’s produce section. Sharp eyes will no doubt spot the prominent and ominous “Fresh Meats” sign, but Noa and the viewers are hard-pressed to find fault with Steve, who seems to know just what to say.
It would be unfair to spoil the details of what happens next, but Steve turns out to be more the man of Noa’s nightmares than her dreams. Khan’s writing, through the characters of Noa’s bestie Millie (Jonica “Jojo” T. Gibbs) and Mille’s ex Paul (Dayo Okeniyi), adopts the color and the shape of an urgent thriller. The deployment of classic tropes leads us from one tense dilemma to another, but Cave frequently upends expectations with shrewd surprises and reversals of fortune. By the time we reach the breathless climax, only the smallest plot holes remain. And those minor shortcomings will only bother the crankiest viewers who overlook the film’s wild forest for its gnarliest trees.
Throughout “Fresh,” Cave shows a sophisticated command of the screw-turning suspense in the material and the milieu. And the escalating predicaments require both Edgar-Jones and Stan to craft performances within performances as Noa and Steve engage in cat-and-mouse funny games with one another. Perhaps the best reward is that none of the collaborators take things too seriously but still ground the movie in a recognizable world (despite the ultra-stylish “Dwell” photoshoot-ready domicile that serves as the central location). The result is a thought-provoking modern fable that sustains multiple readings.
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