Noa hates dating, and who can blame her? All the guys she goes out with are creeps. First she has to sit through some awkward dinner, answering the same old questions, while feigning interest in whatever the douchebag du jour wants to talk about. And then comes the part where he inevitably makes a pass, leaning in for a kiss or a feel, using whatever strategy typically works for him — sweet words, empty promises, perhaps Rohypnol — to get in her pants.
#MeToo notwithstanding, modern dating is still a meat market, a concept that Mimi Cave’s sick but satisfying “Fresh” critiques by taking to its most literal extreme. In this Sundance-launched, Hulu-bound midnight movie, anonymous creeps the world over are salivating for a piece of the sexy single girls they order up online, and Noa can’t help feeling like she’s on the menu. Because she is. A gory allegory for our dangerously impersonal consumption-oriented dating culture, “Fresh” has more than a little in common with past torture-porn movies: Think “Hostel,” with a wicked glow up and a lot more likes.
Lauryn Kahn’s keep-you-guessing script captures the humiliation of the whole dating routine with a typically meh opening meet-up. After swiping past a bunch of losers on the apps, Noa (“Normal People” star Daisy Edgar-Jones) decides to try her luck with Chad (Brett Dier), who seems nice enough online. In person, however, this dude is a dud, throwing shade on her oversize sweater and lack of makeup: “The women in our parents’ generation just cared more about how they looked,” he says. OK, but this old-fashioned gentleman doesn’t bother to hold the door, and when the check comes, he insists on splitting it. So much for chivalry.
No wonder Noa’s bisexual best friend Millie (Jonica “Jojo” T. Gibbs) is leaning toward the other end of the Kinsey scale lately. Noa’s not quite ready to give up on men, but she’s planning to put her love life on ice when she meets a handsome stranger, Steve (Sebastian Stan), in the produce aisle of her local supermarket — you know, the way “our parents’ generation” used to do it. After the frustration of shopping for romance online, there’s something undeniably appealing about an IRL meet-cute at the grocery store, and so Noa agrees to give Steve her number.
That’s probably about as much as can be said about the plot without starting to spoil what’s fresh about “Fresh.” Cave and Kahn are clever to keep audiences in Noa’s position, looking for red flags but hoping for love, while Stan is a prime choice to play Steve: The actor’s plenty charming when he needs to be, with that James Marsden-y megawatt smile of his, but he’s not afraid to go dark — the ex-homecoming king with a few devious tricks up the sleeve of his blood-stained letter jacket. Edgar-Jones is no shrinking violet either, and though the film gets pretty twisted past the 38-minute mark (it’s only then that the opening credits appear), she seems reasonably capable of turning a bad situation to her advantage.
Sequels and remakes aside, pretty much all movies are like first dates, as audiences get to know unfamiliar characters and decide whether they want to spend the next 90 minutes together, so we’re probably a little more open-minded than Noa about where things might go with Steve. He presents himself as a plastic surgeon and a pretty sensitive guy. We’ve heard the horror stories of women kidnapped or violated by strangers, but it’s hard to imagine anything quite as sadistic as the scheme he’s running. (You’ve been warned.)
“I just don’t eat animals,” Steve tells Noa over their dinner together, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s vegan. Cave fills the movie with carnivorous cues, focusing on her characters’ teeth and the stomach-churning sight of people chewing, before dropping the twist: Steve tricks Noa into joining him for a weekend away, drugs her and locks her away in the basement. When she comes to, he explains, “I’m going to sell your meat.” Steve plans to keep her chained up in his basement, hacking off her most edible parts and sending them to an elite group of clients (all men).
Horrifying as that sounds, at least he’s honest, which is more than can be said for most of the guys she’s gone out with. The rest of the film plays like a cross between “Get Out” and Kevin Smith’s very wrong but even funnier “Tusk” (the movie where a sicko tries to turn Justin Long into a human walrus). Though such precedents exist, Kahn’s script does a fine job of delivering fresh surprises and subverting expectations. Take the scene where a would-be male savior (Dayo Okeniyi in the concerned-friend role) pulls into the driveway, hears a gunshot and drives away, rather than endanger his own life. Or the way Noa must partake in Steve’s peculiar appetites in order to take back some degree of power.
Served up with heightened style, ironic soundtrack (gleefully perverting oldies like “Obsession” and “Restless Heart”) and tongue-in-cheek approach to performance, “Fresh” comes across as a carefree bit of bloody fun. But there’s considerably more going on beneath the surface, and the allegory is open-ended enough to hit a range of viewers on different levels, à la recent Sundance sensation “Promising Young Woman.” The gender critique is just as juicy, even if the plot is a lot harder to swallow.