Mimi Cave holds nothing back in her gnarly directorial debut "Fresh," a new thriller written by Lauryn Kahn and produced by Adam McKay. The film just had its premiere at Sundance and has been snatched up by Searchlight Pictures who plan to stream the film via Hulu starting this weekend.
"Fresh" isn't the easiest movie to review. It's a movie that demands you go into it knowing as little as possible. It's a movie guaranteed to completely upend any expectations you may have. It's a movie that ends in a very different place from where it begins. And it's a movie that goes places that words like "dark," "twisted," and "grotesque" can't adequately describe.
This scathing critique of modern dating culture comes packaged with bites of "Promising Young Woman," "American Psycho" and "Get Out." Yet Cave's full course meal has a taste all its own. Her film is brimming with relevant themes, cutting satire and even some B-movie flavor, particularly in the last act where things come dangerously close to unraveling. But Cave holds it all together, ending with a fitting and satisfying knock-out punch.
The film gets off on the right note with its casting. A fabulous Daisy Edgar-Jones (Hulu's "Normal People") plays Noa and to say she hates dating is an understatement. She hates the ritual. She hates the awkwardness. She hates the questions and answers. She hates the projections of perfection. She hates the humiliation and the disappointment. She's starting to wonder if it's even worth the effort. "I've been alone so long," she says at one point, "I'm actually pretty good at it."
Yet deep down she's still a romantic, and her appetite for companionship is what keeps her browsing a dating app called Puzzle Piece. That's where she meets and sets up a date with Chad (Brett Dier), a goof with a deep affection for scarves. The two sit down for dinner at a cheap cash-only Chinese restaurant where Chad rambles on about his acid reflux and about how the older generation of women cared more about their appearance (it's a direct shot at Noa's baggy jeans and frumpy sweater). It's no wonder Noa hates dating.
Just as she's about to hang up the whole dating thing, she meets a sweet good-looking plastic surgeon named Steve (Sebastian Stan) in of all places the supermarket produce section. The hunky Texas transplant has all the ingredients for the perfect guy -- humble, undeniably charming, a glowing smile. At first Noa is hesitant, but after such a sweet old-fashioned meet-cute she decides to go for it and the two begin dating.
Not long after, Steve surprises Noa with a weekend getaway for two. His plan is for them to stay at his place for the night and then get an early start the next morning to a surprise destination. Hesitant at first, Noa agrees to go, much to the concern of her brutally honest best friend Mollie (Jojo T. Gibbs) who's worried things are moving too fast. Steve picks up Noa and drives her to his house, cozily nestled in the woods well outside of the city.
All of the above plays like its own 38-minute romantic comedy. And then we get the actual title screen. That's when the meaning of Cave's grisly parable comes boiling to the surface. I won't dare spoil the big twist (too many have done that over social media), but Cave cleverly lays out numerous hints, many of which won't come into focus until after you see the movie. But suffice it to say, "Fresh" takes its audience to some appalling depths, sprinkling in pinches of pitch-black humor with straight horror that can range from eerily suggestive to shockingly explicit.
Edgar-Jones is really good in a role that pulls her in several different directions. Certain points of the film need her to be witty and charming. Other times illusive and cunning. Some scenes demand vulnerability and terror while others require strength and resilience. Edgar-Jones not only fully commits, but delivers on every layer. But her biggest challenge may be acting next to Sebastian Stan. Together the two have an effortless chemistry. But while Edgar-Jones' job is more complex, Stan is a propulsive force, quickly shedding his character's "good guy" facade to reveal a sinister maniacal side. Stan gets to go big, even getting an utterly outrageous dance number to Animotion's 1984 synth-pop song "Obsession." It's an unforgettable scene that people will link to his career forever.
It also helps that the movie looks incredible. Cave develops a rich unsettling visual style that makes for an exhilarating (and at times horrifying) sensory experience. The strategic uses of colors, closeups and angles; the gruesome imagery shot with a stomach-churning elegance. It makes sense considering the cinematographer is Pawel Pogorzelski, whose credits include "Hereditary" and "Midsommar." But it's also Jennifer Morden's exceptional production design that really shines in the final hour.
Hopefully I've danced around the details enough to leave you intrigued yet still in the dark. Without question that's the best way to approach this wickedly unsettling horror thriller. Be warned: "Fresh" is not for the squeamish and it earns every morsel of its R-rating. But if you can endure its disturbing macabre elements, you'll find a sickly satisfying chiller with more on its mind that you might think. It doesn't always make sense, and there are moments where it veers a little too close to all-out absurdity. But Cave covers most her bases and delivers a dish that's as savory as it is vile.