Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Rated R, 1 hour and 54 minutes
Director: Mimi Cave
Cast: Sebastian Stan, Daisy Edgar-Jones, Jojo T. Gibbs, Charlotte Le Bon
Mimi Cave’s assured directorial debut FRESH is a film best left unspoiled. She and Screenwriter Lauryn Kahn carefully carve a lean cut of meaty drama and thrills, leaving subtextual sentiments unspoken, not only tucked into the margins of the narrative, but also in aesthetic design, where our imagination fills in the gaps. There’s an implicit understanding that what’s unseen can be far more scary and terrifying than what’s explicit. While there is plenty of overt gore shown and dark comedic refrains sung, it’s a symphony of tawdry elegance, a perfect, percolating mix of trash and class. Hewing close to NIP/ TUCK and HANNIBAL, combined with the arresting shock (and occasional shlock) of Cronenberg, the pair have crafted a timeless, twisted AF feminist allegory.
What begins as a math equation for a romcom – adding together a sweet-hearted heroine, her sassy Black best friend, a handsome prospective beau and a charming meet-cute – arrives at an answer far more satirical and sinister than stereotypical. Twenty-something graphic designer Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones) is growing weary of the modern dating scene. Swiping right on an app isn’t getting her any closer to finding true love – just setting herself up for failure with arrogant narcissists. However, things change once she meets Steve (Sebastian Stan) in the produce aisle of the grocery store. He’s a successful plastic surgeon, disarmingly good-looking and, give or take a few adorable fumbles, a genuine, smooth talker.
There’s an undeniable attraction between the two and Noa’s reticent to forget this, noting his unusual, trustworthy behavior as compared to the other louts she’s experienced. Though her protective, bisexual bestie Mollie (Jojo T. Gibbs) is skeptical of Noa’s new guy, love and lust quickly ensue, and after a few short weeks, the lovebirds decide to take their first big milestone getaway together. But before their weekend trip can start, Steve suggests they stop at his place on the way. It’s there, in a remote, 70s-styled mansion, where things take a sharp turn – and when we realize this is no longer a romcom. It’s devilishly, delectably so much more.
Cave and Kahn serve to pull the rug out from under us time and time again, starting with the title card that gives DRIVE MY CAR a run for its money, dropping at around the 38 minute mark. Along with tropes befitting romcoms, they skillfully and innocuously layer in traditional horror genre trappings, everything from the cheesy (no cell phone service) to the cerebral (social media presence). They masterfully build tension alongside character development, both escalating at a precise pace so we aren’t ahead of the action. They toy with our human instincts to predict what’s going to happen, subverting those expectations. Tension release humor comes in the form of puns, an astute sense of irony and dark comedy. The rather ingenious thematic allegory regarding the patriarchal commodification of women’s bodies blossoms in Steve and Noa’s intertwined fateful journey, but even further under the guide of a slippery, shady character played by a steely, cool Charlotte Le Bon. She serves the under-discussed notion that women can (and do!) suffer from ingrained misogyny.
Aesthetically and audibly, Cave utilizes evocative, emotive tricks to world-build. She exercises a terrific visual dexterity capturing the hazy romance of a first date with a montage of close-ups as the duo exchange loving looks. The camera swirls around the lovers, demonstrating the passion and powerful pull of romance – as we too get caught up in it. On the opposite end of the spectrum, when dread and panic prevail, clever camera angles, blurred edges, sound design and Pawel Pogorzelski’s cinematography set mood and atmosphere, adding to the garish gore and saturated scares. Jennifer Morden’s production design, incorporating mirrors as a motif, complements the characters’ reflected and refracted psyches. Assigning an 80s soundtrack (from the likes of Animotion, Peter Cetera and Richard Marx) to Stan’s sadistic sociopath amps up the demented factor. Unsettling strings and disquieting notes of Alex Somers’ score alert us to disenchantment.
Edgar-Jones conjures strength, sympathy and soft vulnerability in her performance. Scenes where her character wrestles with her tormented conscience and circumstance highlight her multi-faceted skills, straddling a fine line of sweet and scheming. She and Stan share great chemistry. Stan continues his streak as one of this era’s most capable, compelling performers. He’s pitch-perfect as the picture’s wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing, Ted Bundy-esque persona.
That said, there are a few problems that impede on some of the third act’s cohesiveness. Certain characters magically appear primarily for screenwriter convenience. One character’s exit poses a logistical question the film doesn’t answer. There’s also a better, obvious end note – a smash cut callback – the picture should’ve landed on to further increase the pitch-black comedy and leave audiences on a stinger. Regardless, commentary and character are cutting, scaring and scarring us.
FRESH premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 18. It will stream exclusively as an original film on Hulu in the U.S. on March 4th.