By: Kayla Caldwell
FRESH is a deliciously disturbed film with Sebastian Stan shining as a new, Patrick Bateman type, with an entrepreneurial twist. It's a wild, impressive debut feature film for Mimi Cave, who most certainly has a new fan in yours truly.
We begin with Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones), who is talking to her best friend Mollie (Jojo T. Gibbs) before a date she pretty much knows is going to be bad, since he texted her just beforehand to say, "fyi, this place is cash only." Her fears are confirmed when her date, an almost 80s-movie level douche, Chad (Jane the Virgin's Brett Dier), goes on an unsolicited rant about how women don't dress up as much as they used to (because Noa was wearing a sweater and not a dress).
Noa vents about the experience to Mollie at kickboxing class, as one does, and I hate to say that I can easily see myself in her rumination on dating, and how maybe some people are just meant to be alone. Mollie, like the best friend we all need, says the message that all women need a man is just from all the Disney movies we were raised on - and also, "f**k, Ariel, - stupid b**ch left the whole sea for a man!" This scene, while very relatable, is a really interesting one, because it shows (and literally says) Noa is powerful, both setting us up for a bigger fall later on, and giving us hope that she's a fighter nonetheless.
Cave really captures the minefield that is dating for women, from men you've just met trying to tell you how to dress, to the trap of commenting on a cute, dog photo just to be sent a confusingly sexually explicit response. A late-night snack run to the grocery store leads Noa to a literal IRL meet cute, the rom-com dream, when Steve (Stan) chats her up in the produce aisle. ("Go science!") He's relentlessly charming, saying all the right things to convince Noa that he is a nice guy™. He makes her laugh. He mentions his sister, and his four-year-old niece, and endears himself to her with self-deprecating humor.
The two go on a lovely date, and you know it's going well, because of the cheery music, a montage of chatter, laughter, and close-up shots of smiling mouths and dreamy eyes - though those shots take on a different meaning later. A few drinks in, things get honest, and Noa launches into a speech about hating dating that feels awfully familiar. They hook up. It's great. On another date, Steve asks if Noa has told anyone about him. It's cute - or is it? They plan a weekend trip, even though they haven't known each other for long, and Mollie thinks it's a bit red flag-y, but "f**k it, right?" This man has his sh*t together. He's a doctor - of course she can trust a doctor! He's got a great place. He even offers to make her a fancy cocktail. In the kind of brilliant move that sends chills down your spine, Steve asks Noa, "Notice any interesting flavors in there?" Noa wants to meet his challenge, and takes several long, analyzing sips, trying to figure out the flavor. Noa passes out. And then - THIRTY-THREE MINUTES into the film, the opening credits begin. This is going to be a wild ride.
Here, the movie takes a turn for the worst, and for the terrifying. Like Unfriended: Dark Web, FRESH, at times, feels ludicrous and unreal. But then again, it's not like I ever venture into the dark side of the web, and I wouldn't put any level of depravity past rich, old white men. This kind of horror just hits different. It's like why I find The Silence of the Lambs so chilling. Sure, Hannibal Lector isn't real - but the man that inspired him was!
FRESH is the kind of film that is desperately scary, because it makes you question your own mortality. You always think this stuff is too crazy to happen to you, but then when you look back at your behavior, sometimes it's like, "Have I just been lucky?" You can take kickboxing classes, and say empowering mantras, but that doesn't mean someone with bad intentions can't take advantage of you. (Editor's note: It's also not your fault!)
Women directors and writers make my heart so happy, because they actually understand that female relationships aren't just cattiness. I would die for my best friends, and you better believe we're all location-sharing with each other so we'd have a place to start, should any of us go missing. Mollie is a ride or die, and like many women our age, she seems like she's seen enough true crime to know the red flags. Your best girlfriends are the best detectives. The next hour and twenty minutes are a disgusting fever dream you can't look away from, with dance numbers that made me feel things for both Edgar-Jones and Stan. The cat-and-mouse game gets more and more twisted until you almost cannot take it anymore, and then it hits a fever pitch.
Edgar-Jones is at times relatable, intimidating, hilarious, and gut-wrenching. When she realizes the trouble she's in, her reaction feels authentic and relatable. She's charming and beautiful, but not a trope. She seems like someone you could know. Stan, on the other hand, is delightfully unhinged. He makes you like him, and then punishes you for it. He's sickening, but at the same time, he makes you see how someone like Noa - or maybe like you - could fall for his ruse. Cave is really able to imbue FRESH with the energy of that Margaret Atwood quote I can never get out of my head, "Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them." (Or worse.)
FRESH is the kind of film that stays with you long after the credits role. I'm already thinking about when I'll watch it again. When a movie affects me so viscerally, it reminds me why I love film in the first place. FRESH is a twisted work of art, and I cannot wait to see what Cave does next. Now, excuse me while I go delete all of my dating apps.
FRESH is streaming now on Hulu.