Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Searchlight Films releases the film on Hulu on Friday, March 4.
About thirty minutes into “Fresh,” a deliciously jangly horror movie, the opening credits roll. Up until then, the movie, which premiered in the Midnight section of the Sundance Film Festival, unfolds like an edgy romantic comedy. In the opening scene, Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones, with a bite) shows up for an app date, which turns out to be a dud: A vain cheapskate who’s brusque with the waiter, the guy tells Noa between bites of their meal that her sweater looks shlumpy and a dress would suit her better. Reading the disagreeable signs, Noa bids him a polite goodbye, but not before Mr. Conceited Civility, upon rejection, can shout, “Good luck finding a guy, you stuck up bitch.”
This sort of bait-and-switch becomes a key ingredient in “Fresh,” Mimi Cave’s classy and clever feature directorial debut. Written by Lauryn Kahn, the movie is framed as a parable of the anxieties of modern dating, of how truly impossible it can feel for (straight) women to catch a break. It’s a familiar setup, and one that’s vulnerable to the traps of heavy-handedness and cliche. But unlike recent predecessors — “Promising Young Woman” and the short story “Cat Person” come to mind — “Fresh” doesn’t wholly aspire to be a feminist arrow to the heart of today’s heterosexual dating scene. More so, it uses its central idea as fodder for stylish black comedy. Where “Promising Young Women” tended to feel labored and clumsy, “Fresh” is sleek and nimble, a worthy new entry into the feminist revenge thriller genre.
Many of the movie’s comic pleasures are thanks to Sebastian Stan, who, invitingly clean-cut and bashful, plays a Texan surgeon named Steve whom Noa meets and exchanges endearing conversation with in an unlikely place: the produce aisle of the grocery store. “I didn’t think people met people in real life anymore,” Noa marvels later, gushing about the meet-cute to her best friend, Mollie (Jojo T. Gibbs). Even so, early dates with Steve go well, and Noa grows cautiously excited. When her new paramour asks for a weekend getaway together, Noa graciously accepts. Has she finally struck gold? It’s here that we reach the opening credits, and the movie spins into nail-biting suspense and terror.
At this point in the movie, Mollie seems to be getting the short end of the stick. Noa’s best (and seemingly only) friend, Mollie is Black and queer, a token sidekick character whose personal life, job, and dating prospects we learn almost nothing about — though we do know that she’s prone to too-loudly encouraging Noa to “get that D.”
But as the story continues, and Steve — no surprise here — turns out not to be the sweet guy he promised, both Mollie and Noa’s characters are given space to deepen. Edgar-Jones, who most notably played Marianne on Hulu’s “Normal People,” is an absorbing screen presence, taking a role that could’ve been played as dopey — the romance cynic who falls for the gentleman — and injecting it with a quiet psychological intensity. Mollie, too, becomes a character to root for independently, which is at least better than only existing as a cheerleader for her sensitive white bestie. In one scene, after Mollie can’t reach Noa for several days, she tells a Black friend that she’s worried but is reluctant to involve police in her search. “Why? She’s white, right?” he jokes in response. Mollie rolls her eyes knowingly.
But as far as performances go, it’s Stan who gets the most time to shine. Dancing around the kitchen lip-syncing to oldie pop songs or just cutting up juicy red meat for dinner, Steve sparkles with smarmy, maniacal energy, like a kind of sophisticated Tyler Durden who’s traded fight clubs for business ventures. He can play the nice guy, but beneath the chivalry he’s hungry for power, and seizes onto it like a snarling dog with a bone.
The movie is also handsomely shot. Settings are depicted in rich dark hues and feature a modern, minimalistic design aesthetic punctuated by slabs of stone and concrete. Cave has an imaginative sense of camera placement, and she’s an expert at inserting ultra-close-up shots at precisely the right moment to induce a laugh, gasp, or shiver. Her camera is always in service of the story, rather than distracting from it with artifice. That’s not to say that there aren’t visual jokes — there are, frequently — but to give them away here would be to spoil the fun.
Except for a couple of on-the-nose lines, “Fresh” wisely chooses show over tell. At the end of the bad-date opening scene, as Noa is walking dejectedly back to her car, she notices a shadowy figure approaching. She fumbles with her keys, hoping to have a form of self defense in case of emergency. Suddenly, the figure enters the light of a lamppost — and is revealed to be a smiling father with his kid in a baby carrier. Sometimes, “Fresh” seems to say, a supposed threat turns out to be nothing. Then again, sometimes it’s not.
“Fresh” premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Searchlight Pictures will release it on Hulu on March 4.