Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones) is a single woman trying to make it out there in a world where dating apps lead to uncomfortable dinners with gross, openly sexist man-children. Imagine her surprise when she has a grocery store meet-cute with the ‘just awkward enough to be charming but not so awkward he’s off-putting’ Steve (Sebastian Stan). As you might guess, the two quickly hit it off, and soon enough Steve’s whisking Noa away on a weekend vacation — but first they have to spend the night at Steve’s place, which it turns out is deep, deep, deep in the woods, isolated from civilization and without any cell service. Looks like Noa’s in some trouble. Cue the opening credits.
The fact that the opening titles don’t drop until thirty minutes into Mimi Cave’s gender politics thriller FRESH is unfortunately the most inventive thing on the menu for this reductive, skin-deep examination of subject matter that deserves far more dimensionality than what Lauryn Kahn’s script has to offer. From the opening act, the film reeks of well past their expiration date cliches regarding toxic men in our modern dating culture and the ways they commodify women to be conquests rather than people.
The trouble is that FRESH doesn’t treat any of its characters as more than commodities either. As Steve’s eventual trapping and torture of Noa ensues, one begs to wonder how much more investment the audience may have in this leading lady if we were given any sense of who she actually was beyond “woman in peril”. FRESH skipped that part, though, choosing instead to simply pin this as a generic Bad Man vs. Good Woman showdown without any attempt at nuance or opening up any (ahem) fresh conversation on topics that are ripe for far deeper examination than what we get here.
FRESH is all frills, no substance, taking its central metaphor of “men see women as meat, right?” and playing it to the rafters (over and over again…), but there simply isn’t anything else there beyond this mere surface observation that has been mined for more fruitful gains plenty of times by smarter films that put in more effort than this. Cave and Kahn’s approach is reminiscent to Promising Young Woman in the way that it doesn’t feel like it’s really contributing much to the conversation, despite it playing itself as if it’s saying something revelatory or particularly incisive.
Perhaps that wouldn’t be quite so damning if the characters were given any dimensionality to them, but they aren’t. An overlong two hours spent with these two characters, and the even worse handled periphery characters, and there’s still nothing known about any of them beyond being cogs in this film’s machine. They could have been anyone, especially the female characters. More time given to the first act, or more thoughtful observations on the characters in this section at the very least, would have gone a long way. Edgar-Jones feels like a better actor than the material given to her here, while Stan is simply not as charming as the film thinks he is, giving him multiple “watch the funny psychopath dance around while committing his heinous crimes” spotlight moments that generate more groans than the bountiful gore on display.
While FRESH aims for progressiveness in its setups, it also falls into one typical trap after the next. This is especially noticeable in its treatment of characters of color, who are relegated to playing the supportive sidekicks, the silent thugs, or long setups for simple jokes and utter irrelevance. If anything, the fact that we’re still playing these tired old tropes in a film that purports to be more with the times and current conversations is the most shocking thing found in the all-too-stale FRESH. Thankfully, the film gets more bearable—even moderately entertaining at times––when it leans harder into its pure thriller elements and stops trying so hard to be a potent metaphor for obvious gender politics, but even then it drags on far too long and stumbles when we’re supposed to have a reaction based on any investment in its underdeveloped characters.
FRESH premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival and is scheduled to be released on March 4th on Hulu by Searchlight Pictures.