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Sundance 2022 Review: Fresh – “Completely engrossing”

Sebastian Stan and Daisy Edgar-Jones appear in FRESH by Mimi Cave, an official selection of the Midnight section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

What. An. Absolute. Ride.  For a debut feature film, director Mimi Cave has set herself a fairly high bar.  I’m not usually much for horror, but FRESH, which yes, is sometimes gory and often stomach-churning in its premise, is completely engrossing from its opening through to its glorious end.  It can also be surprisingly comedic, never taking itself too seriously.  It’s twisted and creepy and nothing like I expected which is exactly how you should watch this film.  So I’ll try to keep the following spoiler-free – difficult because there is SO much I want to talk about.

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Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones of Normal People) is sick and tired of the dating scene.  She’s about to embark on a date with Chad (Jane the Virgin‘s Brett Dier, also appearing at Sundance in After Yang).  It’s dinner, and as he reminds her via text before they meet, this restaurant only takes cash.  During their cringe-worthy date, Chad comments that she’d look nicer in a dress than her oversized sweater and calls her a ‘stuck up bitch’ when she refuses to kiss him good night.  Returning home, she absentmindedly swipes left on the newest eligible bachelors in her area.  Getting a sweet message from a match she smiles, then throws her phone down as a couple of messages later it turns into a dick pic.  No wonder she’s tired.  No, exhausted.

So when she runs into the charmingly awkward Steve (Sebastian Stan) in the produce section of her local grocery store, she’s somewhat smitten.  They go out on a date, chemistry palpable, as they share the same dark humour and develop a clear attraction.  Soon thereafter, Steve is asking her to spend the weekend with him.  While Noa’s best friend Mollie (Jojo T. Gibbs) is wary of this new guy and the speed at which she’s taking things, she also knows it has been a while since Noa’s found anyone worthy of her time.  With Mollie’s reluctant blessing, off Noa goes with Steve, of course to the middle of the woods where cell phones don’t work.  To reveal anything past this point would spoil part of the fun.  Just know that the movie to this point plays a bit like a romantic (dark) comedy but then things take a turn.  In fact, this is even where the creepy credits roll, over 30 minutes in, setting the stage for all that follows.

If you pay attention to the wordplay that screenwriter Lauryn Kahn utilizes, you’ll have the set-up for the horror premise figured out.  Though the realities of what women endure in the online dating scene would be horror enough, she uses the genre to really intensify her social commentary.  Similar to Promising Young Woman in that way, FRESH has a lot to say about the patriarchy and how that affects a woman’s sense of safety, both physical and emotional.  A man following too close behind on your way to the car IS frightening to the vast majority of us.  Our bodies are our own, and not to BE owned.  These themes run straight through every aspect of this film.

Director Mimi Cave runs with every single element of this script and plays with her audience.  Close ups of mouths, eyes, necks and other body parts are intimate and sexy but fraught with meaning.  She plays with light, reflections, camera angles and framing to wonderful effect.  Couple all this with a slamming soundtrack and it would be enough to create an atmospheric, enjoyable film but with the performances of Stan and Edgar-Jones it becomes simply wicked.  Daisy Edgar-Jones gets to show off more of her range here, as the likeable heroine and has wonderful chemistry with Sebastian Stan who is (scarily) effortlessly creepy.

For those fellow scaredy-cats wondering if they can give FRESH a go, I wouldn’t hesitate.  Did my stomach churn through much of the film? Sure. But I was also shouting at the screen and at the edge of my seat by its end – good thing this festival is virtual!  It is a fun thriller that is also refreshingly thoughtful (sorry, I had to) in its observations.  FRESH’s only downfall is that it may be a tad too long, but it’s a small complaint for all its positive aspects.  Mimi Cave is a fresh (there it is again) new creative voice, here, a master of gory surprise that I can’t wait to hear from again.

FRESH is set to be released on Hulu March 4, 2022

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