FRESH– 3 STARS
Forgive this opening sidebar, but a very specific mental reference exploded in this writer’s mind when examining the very ghastly mindsets within the 2022 Sundance entry Fresh now playing on Hulu. My wife is a veteran early childhood teacher where she has dealt with the peccadillos of children for years, all in the effort of teaching openness and acceptance of people’s tastes and preferences. She has a cute little mantra targeting the close-minded picky eaters among her students (and our very own children) that I think is fitting echo to the adult response for Fresh.
LESSON #1: DON’T YUCK SOMEONE’S YUM– My wife likes to say “don’t yuck someone’s yum” when a little kid in her presence turns his or her nose away from something different or untested they see from their usual personalized comfort food choices. She commonly follows that with insisting that the skeptic try a “no thank you bite” adding a little song hook that serenades “You gotta try new things because it might taste good!” You can see what she’s doing. She’s trying to stamp out a minor prejudice before it starts and inspire a little courage in a nice way. Meanwhile, I’m likely the blunt father wrenching a child’s mouth open to hork something down their gullet with a “Come on, it ain’t gonna kill ya!” verbal spike.
Let’s be honest. Her method is better. Yet, here comes Fresh where decency and that kindly prudence are pulverized through a meat grinder. Imagine, with full Matthew McConaughey A Time to Kill summation theatrics, that one tries to apply the “don’t yuck someone’s yum” argument to accepting someone who enjoys the taste and texture of human flesh.
Yeah, go ahead and insert that pause and open those eyes wide. Maybe Fresh’s exotic menu is not a good place for that “no thank you bite.” However, please, please, pretty please with sugar on top, only apply that very fair dismissal to the controversial cuisine on display and not the actual movie. You would be missing a very interesting movie, one you might laugh at or become scared to death to experience. That sensation is worth its morsel of escapism.
Fresh opens in an unassuming way. While enduring a seemingly constant wringer of distrust and disappointment from online dating, the single and non-lonely Noa, played by Normal People star Daisy Edgar-Jones, experiences a good, old fashioned “meet cute” in the produce section of her local supermarket over the flavored trickery that is cotton candy grapes (and, in the yuck/yum department, if you’ve ever tried them, you know their power). Steve, played by a dreamy Sebastian Stan, is a handsome and flirtatious reconstructive surgeon swinging for his chance at some digits to ask Noa out with the wish of “I don’t want you leaving here thinking I’m a weirdo.”
LESSON #2: STALKING IN PERSON– One amusing layer of Fresh’s twisted treatise on modern courtship is the directness of being present. Steve doesn’t have social media, which prompts Noa early on to ask “How am I supposed to stalk you now?” Without missing a beat, Steve replies, “I’ll guess you have to do it in person.” That prods a course of action in the dating game that has admittedly become intimidating and risky for many folks. In this digital age, some of the early feeling-out communication and get-to-know-you banter is done remotely, even in the unequal cyber-stalking fashion, with swipes and clicks at a comfortable and non-threatening distance. Declining a call, ignoring a suitor, or blocking a creep is a keystroke or two away and easier than denying or asking someone forcefully in your very presence to leave or go away.
Sharing her “dickmatized” details with her best friend Mollie (Jonica T. Gibbs), Noa lowers her guard within this tenuous proximity and things couldn’t be better. She accepts Steve’s spur-of-the-moment invitation for a weekend getaway to his luxurious country house. Cocktails are poured, glasses are clinked, and then it all hits, starting with the drugs and then the true motives of Steve.
Finally, a little more than 30 minutes into Fresh, a song comes on and the opening credits arrive right when the movie turns on a dime into something far different than its borderline rom-com beginning. Minute by minute after, Fresh descends to a highly unsettling situation locking Noa (and us) inside the maniacal confines of a high-end psychopath collecting and harvesting juicy and delectable women for his dinner plate and those of the black market filthy rich.
Fresh is a stellar showcase for Sebastian Stan. Through every vile motive and revulsive act perpetrated by his character, the actor squeezes every drop of wry charisma necessary to exude a frank and stunning normalcy to this special kind of predator. Watch the ways he subtly licks his lips, clicks his tongue, and a multitude of other ticks. Sebastian takes a shocking and despicable role and makes it eye-openingly sexy, which is downright savage to witness and comprehend. It’s one of the best and most ballsy performances of his career to date.
Not to be undone whatsoever, Daisy Edgar-Jones gives intelligent strength to a character that will not go down as a petty and blubbering victim. Writer Lauryn Kahn (Ibiza) grants the Noa character the fighting chance to push away her resigned fate through her own mentality and orchestrated behavior. Liam Neeson isn’t coming to rescue her. It’s on her to turn the tables and Daisy creates that wild card to play against another wild card.
LESSON #3: LOOKING FOR LOVE IN ALL THE WRONG PLACES— Fresh does not sugarcoat any of its simmering discontent. As you will see, especially with screamed declarations like “Bitches like you are the f–king problem!,” Mimi Cave and Lauryn Kahn point their undaunted fingers at more villainous sources than just Stan’s central male madman. They willfully layer their circumstantial symbolism against the whole market of relationship-seeking endeavors and its breakdowns of decency, safety, value, and hope.
In this, her debut feature film, Cave graduates from short films and music videos to show off her promising talent. First of all, pulling off that 30-minute opening rug pull was geniously executed. It’s one of the best tone shifts you’ll find in the last decade. Mark an assist to Alex Somers’ sublime musical score. Once Fresh steps into the ugly and harrowing truth of the matter, it becomes a very precarious movie filled with triggers on many levels, from the gag-inducing ones to the social justice outrage variety.
Fresh could have very easily devolved into a sloppy mess of body horror and ditzy damsels in distress, but Cave and Kahn’s exaggerated and sharpened appraisal of the modern dating scene led by tough femininity is what makes Fresh as noteworthy as it is surreal. Both its face value middle fingers and underlying moral deconstructions are tough sells made endlessly provocative. Admittedly so, Fresh is a stout challenge for people willing to turn their gaze along with their stomach. Be careful. Steve will warn you “fear and stress are bad for the meat.” Let’s not have that.