Modern dating is banal and dehumanizing. The most common way to do it is via app, where — in much the same way you’d order chicken tenders for delivery — you pick from a bunch of options provided by an algorithm. You know that algorithm is likely to let you down, so you just hope it won’t lead you to certain death. It’s a boring, horrible way to think about people, at odds with the fundamental desire at the heart of dating: to be seen as a complete person by someone interested in you, and you in them. What’s more likely is objectification: Dating apps encourage users to reduce each other down to parts. To meat.
The indie horror movie Fresh takes that familiar metaphor to a particularly literal extreme. The debut film from director Mimi Cave and writer Lauryn Kahn follows Noa (Normal People’s Daisy Edgar-Jones), a young woman in the throes of dating ennui, dating boring, ridiculous men who feel at liberty to comment on her appearance, want to ramble exclusively about their own interests, and then insult her when she isn’t interested in a second date, much less first-date sex.
Steve (the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Winter Soldier, Sebastian Stan) is different. Noa meets him in a grocery store — the first of the film’s many delicious ironies. He’s charming, clever, and not interested in pressuring her for sex. Even though she barely knows him, Noa decides to go on a weekend getaway with Steve after only a few blissful dates. This turns out to be a mistake when Steve drugs her and imprisons her, with the plan to keep her alive and slowly sell her body as meat to extremely wealthy clients who have developed a taste for cannibalism.
In spite of that horrific premise, there’s a comedic mean streak to Fresh that keeps it from getting too grotesque or grim — starting with the film’s opening credits, which don’t kick off until 30 minutes into the film, when Steve makes his move. Stan effortlessly pivots from charm to menace in that role, operating in a mode not that dissimilar from Penn Badgley as YOU’s Joe Godlberg, albeit less sympathetic. Steve has been doing this to women for a long time. He’s a fully formed amoral monster, but a charming one who dances as he works and likes to banter with his victim. As Noa’s imprisonment continues, her captivity begins to take on the bizarre cadence of dating.
That dynamic is Fresh at its horrific best: In the moments of ambiguity, when Noa, in a desperate bid for survival, starts to believe Steve is taking his time with her because he likes her, and she encourages him to think she might like him too — even suggesting they should start having dinner together, even if that dinner involves human flesh. Cave juxtaposes these scenes against moments of banal consumption. Other characters having normal, non-cannibal meals are shot with unsettling closeness and deafening sound, emphasizing the rip and tear of consumption, the way one life is masticated into nothing but selfish fuel for another life. Late in the film, Noa and Steve engage in a hypnotic, dreamlike dance that’s played more to the camera than to each other, a scene that could be read as interrogating the viewer’s own form of consumption — will we post a gif of it later? Strip it of its context and use it to fuel our own egos?
But there’s a give-and-take in the clever cinematic sleights Cave employs in Fresh’s more entrancing moments. She tangles the horror and peril of dating gone wrong with the understanding that takes place when it goes right. When these two leads bleed together, they believe they’re seeing each other for the first time. Cave takes a light touch with the gore in this film, but she uses it to pointed affect.
Unfortunately, Fresh ditches that ambiguity in favor of an otherwise straightforward survival plot that suffers in its inability to examine its characters too closely. In spite of the film’s more artful moments, Steve remains an uncomplicated villain, and Noa a largely uncomplicated victim. Moments that give the impression that the film may become an uncomfortable, fascinating locked-room drama give way to basic thriller beats where Noa attempts to escape, as her best friend suspects something may be amiss. By the end of Fresh, the film hasn’t done anything more than restating what it made clear at the start: Dating is hell, and women deserve more than to be treated like pieces of meat.
Fresh is now streaming on Hulu.