Directed by: Mimi Cave
Distributed by: Hulu
Written by Anna Harrison
Online dating is an unfortunate fact of life for many people—it’s a cesspool of the worst humanity has to offer, such as pictures of men in backwards baseball caps proudly holding whatever poor dead fish they reeled in that day or, god forbid, a shirtless mirror selfie in a gym locker room, and yet it’s often the only way to score a date in our increasingly plugged in world. Mimi Cave’s feature debut, “Fresh,” opens with Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones) on a miserable tinder date with a man named Chad (Brett Dier), who says things like, “The women in our parents’ generation… they were more into femininity,” as his scarf threatens to trail in the soy sauce from his meal. “I think you would just look great in a dress,” he says like it’s a compliment. Then, when Noa politely tells him that this might not work out, her date calls her a stuck-up bitch. It’s a scene as upsetting as it is mundane: a man gets rejected and he lashes out with misogyny. If it hasn’t happened to you, scroll through Twitter long enough and you’ll see some poor woman lamenting the same fate. On Tinder, everyone gets reduced down to their abs, the size of their breasts, the slant of their smile, and women in particular become mere pieces of meat.
So when nice doctor Steve (Sebastian Stan) comes along in a meet-cute at a grocery store, Noa is smitten (and who can blame her, with his perfectly styled hair and constantly flexing jaw muscles?). They hit it off straight away, and soon enough Steve is inviting Noa to a romantic getaway for the weekend. She accepts, and though her best friend Mollie (Jojo T. Gibbs) is less than keen on the idea, you can’t help but root for these crazy kids. Screenwriter Lauryn Kahn and Cave merrily craft the perfect romcom setup, and Edgar-Jones and Stan have very pleasing chemistry together; only thirty minutes in, when the title card finally drops, does the full extent of what Noa’s gotten herself into become clear. Turns out it’s not just Tinder dates who suck.
What was a standard romcom now becomes something much more delicious: Mollie, the typical black best friend (with another b-word—bisexual—thrown in), sheds the stereotype (mostly) and gets her own agency. Bartender Paul (Dayo Okeniyi) avoids a grisly fate from his knowledge of horror tropes, and Stan’s performance, which was so perfectly built to capture the hearts of viewers like me, gets a whole lot juicier. Most known for his stoic and tortured role as Bucky Barnes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, he’s got a knack for picking projects outside of the MCU that allow him to showcase a broader range, and in “Fresh,” he’s clearly having the time of his life as a Patrick Bateman wannabe.
From here on out, the film becomes a tasty thriller that skillfully walks the razor’s edge between horror and humor, helped by a zippy script from Kahn, a strong visual flair from Cave and cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski, and excellent performances across the board, most especially from Stan. It’s easy (and perhaps a bit lazy on my part) to compare this to something like “Promising Young Woman,” another topical and brightly colored directorial debut, but “Fresh” has a bite—and, more importantly, a follow-through—that the former lacks. In this heightened, horror-adjacent world, the parody of masculinity works better, and the literal commodification of women is so heightened that it, conversely, becomes all too real. Cave clearly values showing over telling, so even when the stakes get absurdly high, rarely does she fall into heavy-handedness.
Despite the gore and dread that permeates the latter two-thirds of the movie, “Fresh” is still a hell of a lot of fun, though it does sometimes bite off more than it can chew. Some nuances become lost—the complicity of women who let misogyny slip by the wayside or, worse, participate in it gets reduced down to a line or two, and though Paul’s genre savviness helps him escape death, it leaves you wondering at his inclusion in the first place, unless it was just to prove that men ain’t shit (though we already knew that) and women should have each other’s backs. In the mad rush of the aftermath of that killer plot twist, some character beats get left by the wayside, though Gibbs, Edgar-Jones, and Stan manage to make it work. While it’s not perfectly cooked, “Fresh” is a slickly presented and meaty debut from Cave, alternating between squeamish and charming in its own freakish way, and I certainly will be looking forward to her next course.
“Fresh” is available to stream on Hulu