Sebastian Stan and Daisy Edgar-Jones appear in FRESH by Mimi Cave, an official selection of the Midnight section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Sundance Film Festival 2022 Review: Fresh ★★★★

Mimi Cave’s first feature film Fresh is a horror-thriller that veers between gruesome gore-soaked thrills and brash dark humour. Screenwriter Lauryn Kahn instigates savvy social commentary examining the contemporary dating world and the toxic masculinity faced by women, perfectly exemplified in performances from the film’s cast: Sebastian Stan, Daisy Edgar-Jones and Jojo T. Gibbs.

Fresh introduces us to Noa (Edgar-Jones), sick of scrolling through dating apps and experiencing one bad date after another, as she meets the extrovertly charming Steve (Stan) in a grocery store. Despite the suspicions of Noa’s best friend Mollie (Gibbs), the loved-up new couple embark on a remote romantic getaway where Noa begins to discover her new love’s disturbing interests.

Kahn’s narrative is one that lulls our expectations into believing we are getting a certain type of film, its first thirty-seven minutes present a glimpse into a single woman navigating the dating pool spurred on by her best friend. Noa’s first date at a Chinese restaurant sees her warned that they only take cash before her potential suitor begins to criticise women that “don’t make an effort” before he proceeds to scream after her polite dismissal of him. Toxic masculinity staples such as unwanted dick pics and a tense walk to her car down a darkened street highlight some of the hazards of a single woman’s exploration of the modern world of dating. The arrival of the awkwardly amusing and seemingly perfect Steve in a chance meeting in a grocery store – followed by a chemistry-filled date – begins to signal a new chapter of Noa’s dating experiences. Kahn builds a light sense of tension in these scenes, littering a few red flags into Steve’s background such as a lack of social media presence – but surely that does not matter when he is so charming?

Cave truly steps the film into gear as Noa and Steve relocate to a cell phone signal free bachelor pad set within a rural woodland expanse. Slowly distorting blurred visuals begin to creep in as Noa accepts a drink from her host before collapsing. Like a tonal sledgehammer, the trippy sixties inspired title sequence hits at the thirty-seven minute mark signalling the shift in style that Fresh deploys as it veers into brash horror territory. The detour in setting from welcoming urban city housing and brightly lit safe spaces to the dark and imposing rural hideway packed with overpowering artwork, plush shag carpets and interior stone walls, signals the bold tonal transition which Cave’s feature takes – Noa is now in Steve’s domain. Pawel Pogorzelski’s cinematography and lighting masterfully craft a sense of the dark overwhelming environment that Noa now experiences in the lower confines of the retreat juxtaposed with its lighter, more modern upper surroundings.

Fresh refuses to hold back when it comes to the gruesome horror visuals on display. Close-ups of ‘fresh meat’, examining its textures and consistencies feel like something you may have witnessed in NBC’s Hannibal whilst grisly surgical removals of limbs and violent showdowns provide asserting and provocative slices of gore-fuelled action – particularly seen in the film’s dramatic final moments. Yet Cave blends this blood-soaked horror tone with a sense of levity and near camp frivolity, soundtrack choices favouring up-tempo eighties anthems including Animotion’s Obsession dilute some of the assertive horror with a welcome playfulness.

Sebastian Stan has a riotously good time as our surprisingly needy, deranged captor. The actor packs the role with the dangerous charm that one might associate with the likes of Ted Bundy – clearly a truly disturbed individual with a veneer of charisma. Moments of levity arrive during the film’s elaborate cooking scenes or a scene where the cannibalistic serial killer notes “I’m taking your ass,” before launching into the very literal surgical procedure of slicing off his victim’s backside. Daisy Edgar-Jones is a more grounded presence as Noa with the actress delivering an impressively layered performance as the captive young woman who attempts to formulate an escape plan in her every waking moment. The actress veers into impressive gung-ho scream queen territory as Fresh proceeds with Noa taking on the extreme toxic masculinity that has plagued her to various extents throughout the film. Support from Jojo T. Gibbs adds a further fresh dynamic and charisma to the fold with the actress elevating the expected ‘best friend’ role through a tense cat and mouse dynamic as she attempts to locate Noa.

Blending taut horror with brash gruesome thrills and moments of deranged levity, Fresh is a delectable treat. Mimi Cave expertly captures the film’s impressive tonal balancing act, whilst Kahn’s narrative puts a savvy and fiendishly inventive spin on the female dating experience. Fresh is a deranged blast.

Fresh plays as part of the Sundance Film Festival 2022. It can be watched at Festival.Sundance.org. Find ticket details here.