There’s a specific cruelty to modern dating, a seemingly unending grind of gut-punching disappointment and hurt, something that’s easily judged and lampooned by those no longer in the game but something that’s really only understood by those still playing. In first-time director Mimi Cave’s rattling debut Fresh, Noa (Normal People’s Daisy Edgar-Jones) is exhausted. In a believably odious first scene first date, she’s informed by her indoor scarf-wearing match that women are no longer as feminine as they should be, in all these comfy over-sized clothes, as he monologues to her about his passion for hot sauce. She leaves with a familiar eye-roll (he calls her a stuck-up bitch, natch) forced back to swiping for love but instead, being met with more unsolicited dick pics. It’s enough to make even the most romantic of romantics admit defeat.
When she meets Steve (Sebastian Stan) in the fresh produce aisle of the local supermarket, she’s caught off-guard by his charm, a handsome, keen and emotionally available stranger who talks as much as he listens. They begin dating and while her best friend Molly (Jojo T Gibbs) is alarmed by his lack of social media presence – a red flag in the 2020s, surely? – Noa allows herself to slowly believe that maybe she’s finally getting what she deserves.
Steve surprises her with a weekend away but first, with traffic shifting their journey to morning, she’ll get to see his place for the first time. Remote and expansive (“This is intimidating,” she remarks), she can’t believe her luck. But after a few sips of an old-fashioned, Noa starts to feel woozy. Before she has time to process, it’s lights out and that’s just the first in a series of nasty surprises.
The believable meet-cute first act takes place entirely, audaciously, before the opening credits, a sweet 30-minute romcom that quickly switches up to reveal something sour, like biting into a succulent peach that’s rotten on the inside. It would be a spoiler, I believe, to detail exactly what the big reveal is although Cave gives us ample warning signs: the title, the location of the initial meet, the references to food … the general nature of it isn’t a surprise but the specifics are, a bracingly nasty rug-pull detailed with chilling normality.
While Fresh can be easily filed a part of the boom in “social thrillers”, exploding post the extraordinary success of Jordan Peele’s Oscar-winning Get Out, it’s one of the few that manages to grip us without the use of a heavy hand. What screenwriter Lauryn Kahn and Cave realise is that first and foremost, this is a genre movie, and rather than waste time patting themselves on the back for making clumsy “but this is really about” commentary, they’re too busy trying to make our palms sweat and our pulses race. While some of the plot details might skirt close to B-movie absurdity, Fresh exists in a real world with real people, rules and stakes. So when terrible things happen, we’re not dealing with just a surface wound. Kahn doesn’t take short cuts with her characters who, for the most part, avoid easily written yet hard-to-stomach behaviour.
What might be a little harder to stomach for some though is just how queasily grotesque parts of the film are, whether we see the gore up close or not, but there’s something fitting about just how unapologetically gnarly it all is. Because such in-your-face exposure makes sense here. For many of us, and especially for women, dating apps and dating culture can be violently revealing, exposing people’s worst impulses and most selfish desires, and the film takes particular issue with how women’s bodies are judged, shared and abused. It’s a brutal snapshot but Kahn avoids disappearing into the but-what-next gloom of Promising Young Woman, which left us lost in hopelessness. There’s a similar war being fought here, between violent masculinity and the women trying to survive it, but there’s more to say than just: everyone is the worst. Fresh makes its point without feeling the need to bludgeon us in the process.
Cave, best known for her music video work, keeps us in the moment without drowning us in poppy, over-styled otherness. She’s a deft orchestrator of suspense (expect any wise studio exec to be pestering her agent with calls immediately) but she also wants us to be part of it rather than watching at a distance and so using Edgar-Jones, a warm and empathetic yet spiky actor, is a masterstroke. She plays Noa as many women have to play themselves on the scene: vulnerable to not seem too standoffish to men craving someone to take care of but with enough steel to protect herself if needed. She sells every gruelling beat and her hot-and-cold chemistry with Stan, leaning into his dark side well, is one of the film’s major sources of propulsion.
If the frenzied last act makes a few missteps (some decisions are a little questionable, Gibbs disappears for a little too long and one of the final quips is awkwardly on-the-nose), it’s all so thrillingly edge-of-seat that such quibbles are forgiven. For those who like their dating movies with a bit of gristle, Fresh is a perfect match.