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{Sundance Film Festival} FRESH – First-Look Review

FRESH opts for thrillingly self-aware stylistic choices. In this horror satire, the credits drop in nearly at the 40-minute mark, so far along that one almost forgets a crucial piece is missing. 

The block capitals appear at the most terrifying point in this Sundance feature debut from director Mimi Cave. It is, of course, to signal a completely different movie is starting. Forget what you’ve just seen, FRESH says, because it’s showdown time, and it’s going to be grim. 

It is as unsettling as going on a road trip and finding out your destination is changing at the last minute. That’s exactly what happens to protagonist Noa (Normal People star Daisy Edgar-Jones) when she is off to a romantic weekend with too-perfect-to-be-true Steve (MCU’s Sebastian Stan). The man is a reconstructive surgeon who charms her by way of cotton candy grapes and ear-to-ear smiles in the vegetable aisle. 

When he tells Noa they’re spending the night at his house before leaving for Cottage Grove in the morning, it becomes increasingly clear that something is off. All suspicions are confirmed — and exceeded — when Steve’s true nature is revealed, and saying any more here would be a spoiler. Going in knowing as little as possible is the best way to savor this delightfully twisted, if a little bumpy, ride.

FRESH delves into the horror of dating

The film written by Lauryn Kahn questions the idea of women’s instincts as a means of survival. This is a hot topic in the aftermath of any gender-based violent crime, shifting the focus away from those truly holding responsibility: men and the people committing the acts of violence. 

Texting a friend, holding one’s keys between fingers, dressing down… these are all, whether consciously or unconsciously, coping mechanisms women adopt in potentially dangerous situations. And Noa does all of those things, too. Early on in the movie, she holds her keys as she walks back to her car with urgency and fear that most women will, sadly, recognize as their own. 

The protagonist navigates a tricky world, after all. In the dating pool, the least harmful thing that you might encounter is a scarf-donning, obnoxious bro lamenting that women are no longer feminine. The worst, well, is Steve and his business model catering to the needs of the rich and powerful.

FRESH starts as a rip-off of most digital romantic comedies. The audience sees a disenchanted Noa sitting through a terrible dinner date after a compulsive dating app swipe montage, a mandatory commentary on how disposable modern romance can feel. Conversely, a real-life, supermarket meet up, paired with a complete lack of digital presence is also an alarming red flag, as Noa’s wise best friend Mollie (Jojo T. Gibbs) doesn’t fail to point out. 

What’s a woman to do? And when is it safe to let go of that uneasiness coming with letting a stranger into your life? These are the questions the film elicits with a certain dark humor and a chunky balance of levity and dread.

Later on, the concept of being disposable is applied to the main horror story in the most gruesome way there is. FRESH seems to believe that replaceability is especially relevant in the case of women, supposedly easier to lose themselves in the meat grinder of unattainable beauty standards and soul-crushing, meaningless relationships.

Daisy Edgar-Jones gives a breakout performance

Cave’s red-hued, stylish debut feature is a grisly takedown of the patriarchy that has definitely a lot (too much, perhaps) to balance on its plate. At a two-hour runtime, one can’t shake the feeling that its undercooked ideas are the ones that could have been the most compelling.

The concept of women pleasing and appeasing men, concealing their terror to survive unspeakable ordeals is apparent in Noa’s behavior. This is a heartbreaking take on the Stockholm syndrome that turns into an empowering movie, allowing space for some mind games to take place. Yet, FRESH leaves the unbalanced power dynamic mostly unexplored, particularly in connection to another character in Steve’s life, Ann (Charlotte Le Bon). Similarly, the jokey criticism of women who have had to play along with men’s rules for so long that they become assailants is simplistic and disappointing in a film about the importance of female friendships and sisterhood.

On the other hand, it is commendable that FRESH steers away from torture porn, but keeps its more graphic sequences tight and mind-boggling. Its gore range from subtle to over-the-top, especially when Stan’s despicable villain takes centre stage.

Edgar-Jones is extremely committed to the role, delivering a riveting, layered performance as Noa. The actress revealed she was able to get in the right mindset for the character after spending two weeks in isolation to enter Canada, where production took place. That forced isolation was channeled in Noa’s captivity, allowing the lead to tap into those emotions effectively.

Whilst the central performances elevate what is an undoubtedly interesting debut from Cave, FRESH might leave the audience with an unpleasant aftertaste to decipher.

FRESH is streaming on Hulu from March 4.