Fresh Review: Sink Your Teeth Into A Gory Romance Gone Wrong [Sundance 2022]

The cutthroat world of modern dating is laid bare in "Fresh," a film that strips away all notions of subtext to satisfy its appetite for juicy satire. In case you've been spared the horrors of the modern-day dating scene, here's the lowdown: it sucks. So as Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones) ushers us through the miserable Tinder-date ritual of a 20-something woman, she doesn't bother to mask her exhaustion. She loathes each and every aspect, from the endless dating app scroll to the inevitable unsolicited dick picks and especially the predictable dinner date, always punctuated by clumsy attempts to get in her pants.

Matching Noa's no-bullshit approach to life, "Fresh" doesn't feign subtlety: of course the first date of the film is with a pretentious douche named Chad. He wears his misogyny on his sleeve, harping on about her chunky sweater because he'd much prefer to see her in a dress. And at the end of the night, he takes such offense to her polite rejection that he walks away shouting, "Good luck finding a guy, you stuck up bitch!" Noa's exasperation speaks for itself: the woes of dating are abundant, especially for women. So when someone steps in to break the cycle, she's caught off guard.

Enter Steve (Sebastian Stan) in all his awkwardly charming glory. This handsome plastic surgeon is close to his sister, emotionally available, shares Noa's love for a solid Old Fashioned, and best of all, no right swipe is required for their romantic escapades! Steve makes his entrance with a produce section meet-cute, like they're co-stars in a grocery store rom-com. The rest of their whirlwind romance follows suit, like something right out of the movies — lots of charm, wit, and laughter to spare. If this all sounds too good to be true, it's because it absolutely is! Did I mention he has no social media presence? This catches the attention of Noa's BFF, Mollie (Jojo T. Gibbs) who suspiciously dubs him a "straight girl fantasy come true." She spots the red flag from a mile away, but not even wise words from a sensible friend can wake Noa to reality — she's so caught up in lovestruck spontaneity that, by their third date, the pair are planning a romantic getaway. Where to? It's a surprise, and Steve is calling the shots.

Dear reader, this is where my plot synopsis goes vague, because the less you know the better. A key ingredient of the film's success is its bait-and-switch storyline, revealed 30 minutes in when "Fresh" undergoes a delectably smooth genre transition. As the couple leaves for a weekend away, the rom-com lighting goes dim and we find ourselves peering overhead at an ominously winding road surrounded by rustling trees. If this sounds familiar, it's because we've careened right into the realm of horror, à la "The Shining" or "Get Out." Though the genre shift hits hard, neither character registers a change. All the while, "Fresh" oozes self-awareness.

The Rom-Com Bites Back

Told from a distinctly female perspective, "Fresh" spotlights the fears simmering beneath each step of the dating process. Not just the dread of walking home in the dead of night — though the tangible woes certainly don't go ignored — I'm talking about the phantom fears that never cease to linger. Who is that person sitting across from you at the table? How much of them is real? How carefully have they been curated? And if you allow yourself to get swept up in the romance, how long until it comes crashing down? "Fresh" demonstrates its understanding with slick style and wry humor, attuned to everything from genre conventions to sexual politics.

Beneath all wanderlust of their easy, burgeoning relationship are piercing flashes of red flags. People are rarely what they seem, which Sebastian Stan proves by flipping the switch from roguish romantic lead to his own take on "American Psycho." Stan embraces the unhinged, alternating between manic and settled, offering up a lived-in psychopath still searching for thrills. And Edgar-Jones more than holds her own throughout the captivating fight for survival, maintaining warmth and empathy even as Noa frays at the edges. But the style of "Fresh" outshines them both. Mimi Cave's camera is ruthless, luxuriating in its power and finessing with rapid flourishes. Blurring the line between beauty and gore sounds impossible but between Lauryn Kahn's script and Cave's direction, the possibilities are endlessly queasy. You'll later realize the movie was laughing at us all along, each sumptuous close-up an inside joke just hinting at the dark secrets. A movie this unabashedly gruesome shouldn't have time for fun —  especially given its traumatic subject matter — but "Fresh" laughs in the face of convention.

Although the style nears perfection, the substance doesn't always match. To put it crudely, "Fresh" digs deep but never manages to hit bone. Observations alone don't accomplish depth, especially when it comes to tired genre tropes. Mollie is one of many examples, unfortunately leaving Gibbs in the lurch. Both Black and queer, Mollie is an answer to the token sidekick littered throughout horror and romcoms alike; she follows the expected footsteps with a couple of slick twists, but ultimately, "Fresh" has nothing substantial to offer her. Merely registering the Black savior trope doesn't circumvent it, and the same can be said of the film's dating disaster commentary.

Still, the style and performances come to the rescue, impressing all the way through with humor swooping in to place a cherry on top. "Fresh" is shameless and hilariously audacious, anticipating critique even when it can't quite offer a response. But the film happily rolls with the punches, so self-assured that you're hard-pressed to let the flaws win out. Because even if its commentary won't linger, the experience of "Fresh" is something to savor.

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10