Sebastian Stan shines as a flesh-eating psychopath in Mimi Cave’s FRESH, a horror/thriller with a great premise but that uses too many familiar tropes.
Who isn’t familiar with the pains of modern dating? The awkward silences, the weird conversations, and the difficulty of having to decide whether or not you like someone based on one evening together. There are those who want you to pay for the meal, those who point out things they don’t like about you, and those who make inappropriate comments about what you’re wearing. And then there are the fussy ones, the judgemental ones, the racist ones, the talkative ones, the “you’re not really my type” ones, and millions of other types of people you end up going on a date with that will end with a “we should do this again sometime,” except that you both know it’s not going to happen. FRESH‘s protagonist Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones, of Normal People) knows this kind of scenario well, as she has been going on many tedious dates that played out exactly that way, the only positive outcome of which was getting to make fun of these meetings with her best friend Molly (Jojo T. Gibbs, of podcast series Electric Easy) the following day. But one day something unexpected happens: Noa meets a stranger at the supermarket who actually seems to be a nice, normal guy. And so, they exchange numbers and eventually go out on a date, where Noa finds out that Steve (Sebastian Stan, of The Falcon And The Winter Soldier) is not only sexy and charismatic, but also funny and down to earth. “He’s probably married,” Molly tells her. But the truth is much more disquieting than that.
Director Mimi Cave’s feature debut begins with a brilliant premise. What if we were to meet a charming stranger, go on a date with them and establish a connection that’s based on mutual trust, only to eventually find out that the stranger in question is actually a dangerous, unstable psychopath with unusual appetites and the tendency of locking people up in basements? FRESH begins with a 38 minutes long introduction that prepares us for what’s to come: even if we’re always aware of where the film is headed, watching Noa fall in love with this handsome cosmetic surgeon is a great way to establish tension. As we watch our two protagonists get closer to one another, the images we see are cheerful, yet we become more and more aware that something isn’t quite right as the film’s atmosphere becomes more and more eerie. Cinematography (Pawel Pogorzelski, of Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon and Hereditary) and score (Alex Somers, of Captain Fantastic) go hand in hand to convey mood and generate different emotions in the audience: the quiet, dreamlike moments in which Noa is in love are delivered by means of warm shades of yellow, soft lighting and handheld camerawork, accompanied by a dreamlike score that envelops her in a bubble of her own creation. When Noa is happy, grungy, energetic rock music enters the diegesis, making us feel closer to a leading character that never fails to be relatable. But then, ominous cues jump in and the camerawork becomes shaky and more frantic, carefully selecting what we get to see and briefly foreshadowing what’s to come before going back to our happy couple again.
In fact, the first 38 minutes of the film are really effective, because they feel like the calm before the storm: tension is created so well that, even if we have an idea of what’s about to happen, it’s still incredibly rewarding to watch the story unfold. Yet, paradoxically, those 38 minutes are the best part of the film, as what happens next, after a delightfully creepy, retro title sequence that plays to the unsettling tune of Joe Meek and the Blue Men’s “I Hear a New World,” is a blend of tired tropes and clichés that prevent the film from taking its great premise anywhere new. As the title already gives away, Steve’s “unusual appetites” have to do with human flesh, and he intends to make Noa his next victim. As we see Steve reveal his true self and Noa become more and more aware of how much danger she’s in, two things happen. On one hand, we’re mesmerized by Sebastian Stan‘s performance; on the other hand, all the situations that should have been scary and tension-inducing become not only extremely predictable, but also kind of laughable.
But let’s start from the positives. The role of Steve seems to have been tailor-made for Sebastian Stan: if our psychotic cannibal is already creepy enough at the beginning of the film, when he’s smiling and poised, he soon becomes even more disturbing when he reveals his true colours, taking on a different accent and tone of voice and making us shiver by being not only violent and unstable, but also soft-spoken and honest – often at the same time. There are scenes of him dancing and singing along to 1980s tunes that will have your eyes glued to the screen by the sheer absurdity of it all, and it’s thanks to Stan that Steve is so captivating even if not much has been done in terms of character development to make his storyline as “fresh” as the film’s title. As Steve’s unwitting yet resourceful victim, Noa is also compelling, and it’s thanks to the incredible emotional range conveyed by Daisy Edgar-Jones that her character is always believable, even in the most unlikely scenarios.
Unfortunately, the film’s biggest flaw resides in its screenplay (Lauryn Kahn, of Ibiza), as FRESH misses the chance to develop its intriguing premise into something new and original, opting instead for safe choices and familiar tropes. The predicament Noa is in should be anxiety-inducing, but there’s a point where it all becomes kind of laughable because of how grotesque and predictable it all is, so much so that Noa and Steve themselves become caricatures instead of fully-fledged characters. There’s an investigative element to it which mostly involves Noa’s best friend Molly, but besides being predictable as well, it also verges into strong/sassy Black woman trope territory at points. There’s a twist involving Steve’s identity that could have really changed the tone of the film, but doesn’t. Some of the film’s dynamics should remind us of anything from horror movies like Saw to revenge films like Promising Young Woman and Oldboy, not to mention the many crime series about serial killers that are currently out there, yet the film’s dynamics are ultimately more reminiscent of Beauty and the Beast, to which the film deliberately nods more than once.
FRESH is a masterclass in acting from both Sebastian Stan and Daisy Edgar-Jones, featuring a great introduction that also showcases the film’s many technical achievements, from score and cinematography to set design, with a screenplay that might not be incredibly original, but that, in those first 38 minutes, has plenty of dry humour and buildup of tension (as well as a great cameo from Brett Dier, aka Jane De Virgin‘s Michael Cordero!). Yet, the film soon loses track of its intriguing premise and opts for a story that becomes just as safe as it is full of tired tropes, undeveloped twists, and stereotypical characters, missing the opportunity to to tap into female-centred revenge movie territory. Watch it for the great performances, but don’t expect to be blown away.
FRESH premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 20, 2022, and will be screened again on the festival’s platform on January 22. The film has been picked up by Searchlight for straight-to-Hulu release.
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