Mimi Cave’s debut feature Fresh sits in a tricky sort of niche where part of its appeal is the unexpected direction its story takes, but where discussion of that direction will inevitably give away some of its secrets. Even by mentioning this shift the damage has partly been done, since readers will now be aware that the film is not quite what it originally purports to be. It is the price we all have to pay, I suppose, since I think it would be irresponsible to let people start the film confidently expecting a romantic comedy and suddenly finding themselves watching a deeply queasy horror film instead. If I have spoiled things for you, I apologise, but trust that if you finish reading at the end of the next sentence I have spoiled far less that Fresh‘s own promotion and advertising has. It’s a great little film, and you should endeavour to give it a shot.
Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones) is sick of the dating scene: the awkward dinners, swiping left and right on dating apps, and particularly the unsolicited ‘dick pics’. A chance encounter in a supermarket introduces her to Steve (Sebastian Stan), a charismatic doctor that seems just the antidote to her dating blues.
The first half hour of Fresh really does feel like an energised and knowing reset of the romantic comedy. It boasts a tremendous female perspective on male behaviour – both in person and online – and very effectively showcases the challenges women face on a seemingly daily basis. It spikes the stereotypes, and allows a fresh sort of cheerful cynicism to keep it light but relevant. There is a warmth to the characters that makes it a very easy watch. Then it starts to instinctively feel wrong, and untrustworthy. Alarm bells sound in the mind as mixed behaviours build a growing sense of paranoia. By the time it is obvious that Noa is in trouble it is too late to escape, and Fresh slides into an entirely new vibe.
Fresh is stylishly produced, with a rich aesthetic that deliberately straddles the line between luxurious and nauseating. This sickly-sweet environment plays host to two excellent lead performances from Edgar-Jones and Stan. They embrace the film’s often absurd developments, and go a long way in convincing the audience to accept a fairly unlikely situation. There is strong supporting work here too: chiefly from Dayo Okeniyi as the amusing bartender Paul and particularly Jonica T. Gibbs as Noa’s enterprising best friend Millie.
It isn’t perfect. For one thing the third act rather feels like Cave and screenwriter Lauryn Kahn gave up on juggling all of the narrative balls and simply threw them in the air and ran away. This is particularly true when it comes to the character of Ann (Charlotte Le Bon), whose role in the narrative is set up with intrigue but abandoned in a panic. The film’s overarching themes also feel very slightly underdeveloped. Then there is the problem of violence: the jump between genres is viscerally jarring – as I suspect it is intended to be – and it is unclear at first just how graphic the film is going to become.
Altogether this is a superb first-time feature: smart, provocative, unexpectedly weird and often very, very funny. That said, its idiosyncratic delivery may be – like some of its characters – an acquired taste.
Fresh debuts on Disney+ and Hulu on Friday (4 March).
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