Producers: Adam McKay, Kevin Messick and Maeve Cullinane Director: Mimi Cave Screenplay: Lauryn Kahn Cast: Daisy Edgar-Jones, Sebastian Stan, Jojo T. Gibbs, Charlotte Le Bon, Andrea Bang, Dayo Okeniyi and Brett Dier Distributor: Searchlight Pictures
In the opening scene of Mimi Cave’s debut feature, Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones) experiences the unfortunate result of using a dating app. She finds herself saddled sharing a meal—dutch treat, no less—with a smug, hyper-critical creep (Brett Dier) who treats both her and the waitress condescendingly and then is enraged when she says she’s not interested in a repeat performance. It’s a cringingly funny sequence, perhaps the best one in “Fresh.”
Noa’s luck seems to change, though, when she bumps into Steve (Sebastian Stan), a plastic surgeon, in the produce section of the supermarket. He’s older, and a little too smooth, but handsome, with a line of charming patter. After this “cute” meeting she accepts the offer of a date, and it goes well. Not long afterward she agrees to go off for a weekend with him, despite the reservations of her best friend Mollie (Jojo T. Gibbs).
Since the traffic is heavy, Noa agrees to spend the night at his place so they can get an early start in the morning. Bad idea. He drugs her, and…
So ends the first half-hour of the movie, which might be called its romantic comedy prologue. Then the opening titles finally appear, initiating its major section, a horror film with a satirical edge that becomes maniacally gruesome in the final stretch.
One doesn’t want to explain too much about the plot; suffice it to say that Steve is a person with unusual appetites who happens to be skilled not only with snappy come-ons and drugs, but with knives of all sorts. He’s increasingly infatuated with Noa even as he punishes her, as only he can, when she tries to resist him. She also finds that she is far from his first victim.
Meanwhile Mollie grows concerned, believing that the texts she’s receiving from Noa are not really written by her. She enlists the aid of Paul (Dayo Okeniyi), a bartender who served Steve and Noa on one of their dates, and is able to discover that Steve is a married man with a cool blonde wife (Charlotte Le Bon). That will bring her into danger, too.
Cave and screenwriter Lauryn Kahn apparently believe that they’re on the cutting edge here (no pun intended), but the fact of the matter is that this sort of very dark comedy is no longer the rarity it once was, and compared to some other recent examples (“Promising Young Woman,” for example) it’s neither terribly clever nor shocking. The main plot line gets rather repetitive, and the subplots weak (that involving Mollie is much too reminiscent of “The Shining” and “The Stepfather”).
Worse still, the movie goes haywire in the last act, turning into a typically gross-out horror show marked with dozens of blades, gallons of blood and more climaxes than the proverbial porn flick. It’s as though the makers felt that the queasiness they’d engendered in their tale of dating gone wrong wasn’t enough to hold the viewer’s attention and decided to go for broke by appealing to fans looking for a typical slasher picture. The result might bring vicarious satisfaction to those wanting toxic masculinity to get what it deserves, but it cheapens the more sophisticated tone the earlier portions of the film had been aiming for.
Still, “Fresh” has rewards in its lead performances and its visuals. Edgar-Jones makes a spunky, determined heroine, who shows intelligence despite Noa’s initial poor decisions. And Stan uses his wolfish good looks to excellent effect, suffusing Steve with oily menace beneath his handsome exterior. The supporting performances are merely serviceable, but Jennifer Morden’s design of Steve’s modernistic abode is both attractive and eerie, and Pawel Pogorzelski’s cinematography uses it admirably, especially in the sequences set in the house’s elegant dining-room. Unfortunately Martin Penda’s editing can do little to alleviate the stuttering tempos of the picture’s initial sections or the chaos of its finale, and Alex Somers’ score is overshadowed by the pop songs employed at important moments as background to perverse dance production numbers.
In spite of its title, Cave’s film is really no fresher than the contents of the cavernous freezer in its villain’s home.