This review originally ran as part of Paste’s Sundance 2022 coverage.
App dating gets its Bumbling psychothriller with Fresh, a movie that Hinges upon its literal and allegorical human meat Grindr. Music video director Mimi Cave adds some glitz to Adam McKay disciple Lauryn Kahn’s script in her feature debut, but the film lacks the necessary bite either in its body horror or humor to truly pull off its cannibalistic commentary.
To even get to the fun, Fresh asks a high price: Weathering Noa’s (Daisy Edgar-Jones) played-out dating app horror stories and a psychopathic meet-cute with grocery store creep Steve (Sebastian Stan) that’s clearly leading nowhere good. This goes on for a good half-hour—during which the starry-eyed and bland Noa claims Steve is cute (he is, in a movie star way), funny (he is not, even in a movie star way), and charming (he doesn’t openly neg her)—before we finally get to the title card and the meat (ha!) of the movie. It’s a bold move that would’ve worked wonders if it all didn’t feel a little predictable.
As the movie unveils its bloody scenario, it plays into tropes to such an extent that it can feel like a sketch about Dating In The Modern World spun out from the idea of “What would really happen in 50 Shades of Grey?” Except for the “having a Black friend (Jojo T. Gibbs), often queer, who is the only person with a brain in their head” thing. That’s just a comedy trope brought in for support, because there’s no way that Anastasia Steele would ever have a Black friend.
As Noa comes to terms with the terrible situation she and countless other women have found themselves in, the film finds its strongest material. As Cave lays out the meticulously decorated floorplan with a glossy camera, Kahn walks us through the situation while planting all the necessary (if sometimes seemingly arbitrary) details for the rest of the plot. Throughout the second act, which can otherwise be a little workmanlike in its presentation of the facts and setting, Cave breaks things up with a few excellent sequences playing to her strengths with sound and rhythm. Stan (while mostly good at his Patrick Date-man during the rest of the film) is charmingly strange in the musical moments, dancing with enough candid verve that you almost don’t mind that these scenes can feel like watered-down versions of Oscar Isaac’s narcissistic Ex Machina jam sesh.
Some of the character’s other behaviors take you out of the action as you start to contemplate how in the world he’s gotten away with this for so long. We’re asked to believe that Steve is both a hardened sociopath and a total chump, meticulously planning and building a seduction-dungeon-surgery-distribution-consumption pipeline while also falling for the dumbest, most blatant ruse in the “get away from the killer” handbook. Part of this plays to Fresh’s larger themes (men are jokes, relationships/dating can be consumptive/commodifying, some women are Stockholmed into being enablers) but with Stan and Edgar-Jones playing it so straight, these and other glossed story moments clash with the rest of the dish the film serves. The tone feels a bit too calculated for some of the “and then this happens” plotting, but it might’ve skated by if the gore was used to jar us out of our own heads. However, despite a few enjoyably gruesome moments (one cauterized money shot is worth its blink-and-you-miss-it appearance), Fresh is still nowhere close to the network TV theatrics or gross-outs of Hannibal, which maintains the gold standard for aesthetically pleasing psychosexual people-eating.
Instead, Fresh comes off as a romance-gone-wrong riff that can be a little smart and a little nasty, but is never as bold or brutal as it needs to be to stand out from a genre constantly looking to self-reflect. While rarely feeling trite, its observations never feel fully invested in, be they dating metaphors, horror iconography or the inner/outer workings of a businesslike madman. It’s still a bit of a romp, but sacrificing both its logical plotting and dark humor with shortcuts (and not quite having an ending, just kind of stopping once it’s out of gas), cuts the legs out from under Fresh.
Director: Mimi Cave
Writers: Lauryn Kahn
Stars: Daisy Edgar-Jones, Sebastian Stan, Jojo T. Gibbs, Charlotte Le Bon, Andrea Bang, Dayo Okeniyi
Release Date: January 21, 2022 (Sundance)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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