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Sundance 2022: Fresh is an ambitious thriller that doesn’t quite gel

fresh

Despite a strong lead performance & some clever stylistic touches, the provocative Fresh ultimately feels a bit hollow.

(This review is part of our coverage of the 2022 Sundance Festival)

Fresh is a film that will no doubt be looked upon by many as following in the path of such previous Sundance premieres as Promising Young Female and Violation—a deliberately provocative work exploring issues such as sexual violence and toxic masculinity through a combination of social commentary, dark comedy and grisly violence designed to inspire any number of impassioned conversations, though perhaps not over the course of a post-screening meal. Although not entirely successful, Mimi Cave’s debut feature is certainly one that will grab attentions, even if it doesn’t quite manage to pull its various elements into a fully compelling whole.

Sweet-but-lonely Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones) is looking for romance, but finds herself trapped in an endless cycle of dating app duds. One night, while grocery shopping, she meets Steve (Sebastian Stan), a charming and handsome plastic surgeon, and things click enough between them to convince her to give him her phone number. After a subsequent proper date goes even better, she agrees to go off with him on a surprise weekend getaway. It all seems too good to be true and, as she soon discovers, that proves to be exactly the case.

That the direction of Lauryn Kahn’s screenplay takes such a sudden turn at this point will probably not come as much of a surprise to most reasonably alert viewers. After all, if it were to proceed along the standard rom-com lines of its opening half-hour or so, it probably would not have made its debut as one of the festival’s midnight selections. However, while most viewers will figure out that things may not seem quite right, few will accurately guess as to just how wrong they become in ways that will no doubt generate plenty of online conversation once Fresh is released this March on Hulu. 

Fresh (Sundance)

The extended pre-title sequence charting the meeting and initial relationship between Noa and Steve is easily the best section of the film. Kahn’s screenplay finds just the right approach to serve as both an ideal iteration and a subtle skewering of the usual genre tropes. Cave similarly does a good job of staging those elements in ways that quietly but effectively hint at the darker underpinnings inherent in them—the sound design is especially inventive in this regard. In her first role since her breakthrough turn in Normal People, Edgar-Jones confirms the incredible star quality that she demonstrated there, and Stan is easily her charismatic match.

The problem is that once the film turns over its narrative cards to reveal what is really going on and the considerable initial shock wears off, it doesn’t really have anywhere else to go with a whole lot of running time to kill before its conclusions. Sure, the details are gruesome as can be but quickly grow repetitive after a while—the film clocks in at just under two hours and could probably benefit from some pruning here and there. The film also traffics in a number of disappointingly familiar cliches, ranging from unreliable cell phone service to a best pal character (Jojo T. Gibbs) who quickly suspects that something is up with her missing friend, but elects to pursue her suspicions herself. The finale is also kind of a disappointment, a standard-issue Grand Guignol-style blowout lacking any of the satirical insight suggested by the opening scenes.

Fresh is not exactly bad and I vastly prefer it, even with its flaws, to the insultingly vapid likes of Promising Young Woman. It just never manages to live up to the considerable impact of its early scenes and to the performances from Edgar-Jones and Stan. Nevertheless, Cave demonstrates enough promise as a filmmaker to suggest that she has a genuinely strong and transgressive work in her, even if she hasn’t quite pulled it off this time around. 

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Peter Sobczynski

Peter Sobczynski is a Chicago-based filmcritic whose work can be seen at RogerEbert.com, EFilmcritic.com and, well, here. He is also on the board for the Chicago Critics Film Festival and the Chicago Film Critics Association. Yes, he once gave four stars to “Valerian” and he would do it again.

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