Fresh movie review: A bloody rom-com that bites back

·3 min read

God, when did dating turn into such a meat market? That's pretty much the main gag in Fresh, a clever, gory metaphor for the seemingly endless horrors of modern romance rooted in a plot twist just outrageous enough to plausibly be true.

Normal People's Daisy Edgar-Jones is Noa, a girl wandering the arid desert of online apps and picking up the worst tumbleweeds. (One particular winner in a drapey scarf patiently mansplains the art of femininity to her, then splits the check and takes her leftovers). She despairs to her best friend, Mollie (Jojo T. Gibbs), of ever finding anyone halfway normal, but that all changes with a meet-cute over grapes at a grocery store: Steve (Sebastian Stan) has great hair and gets her jokes, a reconstructive surgeon who makes a mean Old Fashioned, always holds the door open, and talks lovingly of his sister and niece.

Sundance Film Festival Preview
Sundance Film Festival Preview

Sundance Institute Sebastian Stan and Daisy Edgar-Jones in 'Fresh'

It's nearly thirty minutes in by now and the title credits haven't rolled; if this were a short film, it would be a romantic comedy. But that's not where director Mimi Cave is headed in her feature debut, and when Steve invites Noa to spend the weekend at his house in the country, the invisible screeching violins kick in. Dream-guy Steve it turns out is not who he seems, and if Noa wants to leave, she'll need to do a lot more than order a Lyft.

Bad reception is one of the script's staler tropes (when a man in a movie casually says the wi-fi in the woods is spotty, just go ahead and pack a body bag). And Stan's character feels like an amalgamation of all the handsome, dead-eyed charmers who came before him, from Scream's Skeet Ulrich to Christian Bale in American Psycho — the guy with a golden smile and nothing but emptiness underneath.

But Edgar-Jones, who mostly got to be delicate and sad in Normal People, brings a sweet steeliness to Noa; she's not screaming slasher chum, but she's not some improbable Houdini either, and when she realizes her best hope of ever going home is to play Steve's game better than he can, she locks in. (Gibbs' Mollie has a smart turn too, though you wish there were more for her to do than the requisite best-friend rescue mission).

In a world where Get Out and Promising Young Woman have already rewritten the template for social satire as a hard-R horror show, the messages in Fresh (which begins streaming on Hulu March 4) aren't especially new or trenchant, and the final scenes tumble into midnight-movie silliness. Still, Cave has a smart, stylish way of storytelling that somehow makes a film built on bone saws and grotesqueries feel almost breezy. It's a nightmare out there; sometimes you just have to bite off more than you can chew. Grade: B

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