By Amber Rawlings
Forewarning, there are *spoilers* ahead.
I, by some miracle, have never been fully in the throes of online dating. I’ve watched over the shoulders of male friends as they input painstakingly thought-out responses to the questions on their profile, but I’ve never been on a date off the back of a few pictures and stilted conversations about their dog. This conceit is the target of Fresh, Mimi Cave’s directorial debut about the horrors of dating through the eyes of a twenty-something Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and her latest dating conquest, the charming but ultimately psychopathic Steve (Sebastian Stan).
Without giving too much away, Cave and scriptwriter Lauryn Kahn succeeded in articulating the trials and tribulations of love in the digital age. Fresh worked. I am terrified of both the hordes of average, often creepy men that exist within my phone and any too-good-to-be-true, meet cute type scenarios that take place outside of dating apps. Thanks to Fresh’s clever – and retrospectively very fraught - thirty-minute opening sequence, I am now endlessly suspicious of the things I don’t know about those closest to me. Fresh is a film that has a palpable effect on its viewer. And its power lies in how it never takes itself too seriously in doing so.
The stylistic cinematography – wide angles, swooping cameras and POV shots – haven’t necessarily earnt their use. They do, however, attribute to the film’s fun and comedic register and prevent Fresh from going down the route of a relentless, doom-mongering PSA. Parts can be a little silly: the cannibals that Steven delivers his product to are all a little James Bond villain-esque and I’m dubious about the hip-length plait on Steve’s delivery man-stroke-henchman. At the end of the day though, it’s this ability to poke fun at itself that make Fresh a much more amusing romp than the films it will inevitably get compared to. For example, Promising Young Woman - the cinematic equivalent of having rape culture shoved down your throat - makes Fresh feel joyous, care-free and cool.
Even the dynamic camerawork comes into its own during the film’s dance sequences, enmeshing Cave’s experience as a choreographer with directing to create dream-like scenes that exude the energy of a director that’s saying, “why not?”. And I’m here for it. With accompanying music ranging from 80s classics to contemporary songs from Blood Orange, these scenes feel like an insight into the future of filmmaking, a future with films made by younger creators, with pop culture references for younger audiences. The actors at the helm of Fresh are an important part of the film’s young and cool equation too. Normal People’s Daisy Edgar Jones (the poster-girl for that Sally Rooney brand of angst) is an incredibly natural, understated Noa; she has a particular knack for those fake laughs in some of the later exchanges with Steve. Steve is, of course, a scene-stealing Sebastian Stan, who executes an oddly magnetic performance that’s able to flit between charming and sociopathic in an instant.
Fresh’s central performances, cinematography, and soundtrack not taking themselves too seriously could be a problem if it wasn’t for Kahn’s script. As well as the overarching satire of dating culture, Kahn peppers the script with more subtle allusions to the female experience. At one point Steve, after taking her captive, refers to Noa through the overtly sexual nominators of “good girl” and “bad girl”, raising questions about the roots and implications of normalised aspects of dirty talk. “We all die, but it’s really just how we decide to go out,” is Steve’s justification for schmoozing hapless women before harvesting their flesh. Lines like this show how Steve doesn’t realise that women, unlike their male counterparts, don’t get the luxury of deciding their fate. In fact, women are confronted with the possibility of their own death day most days. Before even meeting Steve, Noa has already gone on a date with an angry misogynist and been stalked down an alleyway. Cave and Kahn play with the idea that, in another film or on another day, Noa could just have easily met her demise through another one of these charged encounters.
After watching Fresh, that perverse part of me had to do a quick bit of research to see if there actually is a human meat trade. While I probably wasn’t looking in the right place, signs mostly point to no. But I didn’t really need any confirmation of that to understand the palpale core of Fresh’s social commentary. Whether to the extent of actually eating women, the tragic, dark and very real world of human trafficking, or the way in which women’s bodies are commodified on social media, within celebrity culture or on dating apps, women are more vulnerable to being “consumed”. This allegory – one that goes beyond just the dating experience – is, for me, the most impressive part of Fresh.
While the endnote of Fresh has garnered criticism for being a little heavy-handed, Cave and Kahn also tap into the fact that, despite its glaringly horrible nature, there’s something about modern dating that makes it almost compulsive. You’ll brush yourself off - pop on a prosthetic limb if you’re Fresh’s Penny – and go straight in for round two. As well as questions of how these three women will get home and then proceed with their lives, I couldn’t help but wonder if Noa might respond to Chad’s “U up?” text. While Cave and Kahn did succeed with their lament of dating, I could put it all aside for a dance to a Dev Hynes song with a Sebastian Stan look-alike. If it was Sebastian Stan himself, I might even be able to compartmentalize the whole cannibal thing. And with the addictive quality of dating apps, the monumental value endowed on having a partner and the way in which terms like “spinster” dominate the female imagination, am I really to blame?
Fresh is gory, stylish, witty and very, very fun. Most of all, it doesn’t compromise the fun it has by getting weighed down with what it’s trying to say.