Director: Mimi Cave
Stars: Daisy Edgar-Jones, Sebastian Stan, Andrea Bang
Steve (Sebastian Stan) is a prosperous doctor with a nice house. Chic wall art. Stylish design flourishes (he has doors that make rooms look like paddocks). He can cook. He’s handsome and charming (in an American way, at least). But he has little in the way of a social media presence. “Red flag” notes Mollie (Jojo T. Gibbs), while listening to her best friend Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones) bullet point his good qualities.
Noa has been trying to find someone for a while, navigating the horrors of dating apps (the ‘Chad’s; the unsolicited dick pics). In it’s extended opening, Mimi Cave’s plentiful directorial debut Fresh itemises the threats and inadequacies of modern dating for hetero women. It’s no wonder Noa is tired. The predatory imbalance between the sexes weighs heavy. Noa is intelligent, witty, keeps fit, is wisely guarded in vulnerable situations. What isn’t she doing right?
She meets Steve organically, and that’s part of the appeal. He solicits her attention in the fresh food aisle of a supermarket and they have their romcom meet-cute. He goofs off and she gives him her number. They date. Mollie is happy for her friend, but also in her corner. Who is this guy?
Fresh drops it’s title cards a good half-hour into the running*, by which time it’s turned over half it’s hand already, but there are aces still to come. It’s a film that’s cagy to talk about for fear of spilling it’s secrets. Safe to say Steve isn’t exactly who he appears to be, and Cave’s movie uses some familiar tropes from the thriller and horror genres to get real about the position and predicament of women in society, among other metaphorical morsels.
Brought to life from a spicy and well-seasoned script by Lauryn Kahn, Fresh tucks into the commodification of women; how society packages females for male consumption. The female characters here are rounded and real, yet Cave often opts to frame them in extreme close-ups that section off body parts. Noa’s hand on her own throat in the shower. The back of her neck. An open eye. As Fresh goes on this visual grammar becomes literal threat.
The purpose is twofold; firstly to convey how women are objectified in western culture, secondly to express how bad experiences and unsolicited attention can wear away at us. We’re all cagy to varying degrees. We’ve all had experiences that wound us, that we use as reasons to erect barriers. Fresh is very conscious of this. It’s about how we give away ground, losing parts of ourselves in order to preserve what remains.
It’s also about reaching a point where you’re not prepared to lose anything more.
Edgar-Jones makes for an eminently engaging lead as Noa, projecting a wherewithal that makes rooting for her a very easy ask. She has her wobbles – particularly when she realises the danger she’s in – but when up against it, she’s ready to endure and survive. Stan, meanwhile, goes to some sickeningly sociopathic places as Steve. His casual air is quite disarming, and threatens to tip Fresh into quirky comedy on a number of occasions. This tonal teetering feels deliberate, however. Cave is keen to keep her audience off balance. On the peripheries, Gibbs makes fine work of a rather thankless role. Fresh is a similar shape to Jordan Peele’s Get Out. On that score, she’s this movie’s Lil Rel Howery (Dayo Okeniyi picks up his share of this work, too).
Peele’s smash hit feels like the most appropriate touchstone for Fresh in other ways, too. Like Chris in Get Out, Noa finds herself isolated in a situation that acts like a hall of mirrors reflecting the toxicity the world bombards her with in her day-to-day. An extreme version of the humdrum. Overcoming that state of being is her only option in order to survive. Fighting back has become necessary.
Cave uses Kahn’s wry screenplay as an opportunity to fully showcase herself. Her film is well-presented. Cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski and production designer Jennifer Morden aid her significantly in crafting a combination horror/thriller that looks deliciously sleek. The first bite, as they say, is with the eye. And Fresh certainly looks appetising.
A couple of narrative choices raise eyebrows. Steve’s domestic situation away from his nonchalant pick-ups is given visibility, but is only briefly explored. One character in particular feels tantalisingly out of reach. Again, this is a deliberate choice, but more time examining that part of the story might’ve yielded fascinating results.
And, also, the third act hinges on an act of forgetfulness that feels just a little bit too convenient. Yet it’s not something to get hung-up over. Happenstance is a part of life. It’s what you make of it that counts.
Fresh isn’t just social commentary on how women are treated. By extension it becomes a condemnation of our often lackadaisical approach to the meat industry and the treatment of animals reduced to the more dissociative term ‘produce’. By equating one with the other, Fresh pushes something rather unappetising onto our plates, but does so with engaging abandon. Consider yourselves served.