We should have seen this coming. After “Promising Young Woman” made a splash at Sundance two years ago, the festival was bound to feature more films (cl)aiming to undermine expectations and play with film tropes to craft a fiercely feminist take-down of the patriarchy. At this year’s festival, that film is “FRESH,” directed by Mimi Cave and written by Lauryn Kahn. This time, however, we are unlikely to experience the months and months of online discourse that Emerald Fennell’s film unleashed, as “FRESH” unthinkingly falls into all kinds of regressive and reactionary traps without leaving much space for discussion or disagreement.
But even before the shakiness of its argument comes into focus, the film is off to a worrying start. We are first introduced to Noa (MVP Daisy Edgar-Jones) in her car, FaceTiming her best friend Mollie (Jojo T. Gibbs) before what will turn out to be an utterly disastrous date with a stranger called Chad (this one not played by Chad Stahelski, for shame). From the young man’s boring and occasionally gross chat to his sexist theories and bad manners, before finally concluding with a goodbye insult, the encounter is a greatest hits compilation of all the dispiriting scenarios that can occur during first dates. But it is all stuff we’ve seen before, and the film’s failure to acknowledge that is the first warning sign that perhaps “FRESH” will be a little staler than promised. For all its faults, ‘PYW’ was at least self-aware about how boring and predictably awful its bad men were.
Here, rather than roll our eyes together with our main protagonist, we can only watch her be humiliated and hurt — a naturally uncomfortable viewing experience made downright unpleasant by how pointless it seems, making no new great or funny point about how awful it can be to be a young single woman today. The sadistic moment would perhaps make more sense if the film actually evolved in a realist register. But like “Promising Young Woman,” “FRESH” is set in a heightened reality, at least most of the time. The first twenty or so minutes of the film, where Noa’s discombobulating experience with Chad is soon followed by a meet-cute then a date with an older, funnier, sexier stranger called Steve (Sebastian Stan), have the same phoned-in and almost didactic quality as that opening scene, lazily setting up a two-dimensional world and premise that we soon can tell were only sketched out in order to be then upended in a gnarly and predictable reveal.
Only at this point do the opening credits kick in, and the delay is a bit of fun. Most importantly, it also marks the true beginning of the film and of what it actually wants to be doing — namely, tell the story of a woman captured and tortured by a genuinely twisted man who works for other powerful men, in a wonky metaphor for what the patriarchy does to women. The connection between the film’s two parts is clear on paper (Steve abused Noa’s trust and took advantage of her desire, and has now made her a lamb on her way to the slaughter) but gets lost in practice due to the film’s uncertain tone and rudimentary plot progression. After setting up the metaphor and lingering on its adjacent horrors, the film simply lacks the bite and momentum necessary to sustain that link between its gore and the real-life horrors of dating. Instead, it seems content to merely go from predictable story beat A to predictable story beat B, leaving any possible deeper meaning aside and the viewer bored.
There are, in fact, moments where “FRESH” appears if not at war with itself, then at least confused about its own supposedly progressive ideas. The characterization of Mollie as Noa’s no-nonsense Black best friend is cliched, as is that of her bartender friend (Dayo Okeniyi), and the presence of exclusively non-White characters in peripheral roles is a strange and unpleasant retro touch. The film struggles with exclusively feminist questions, in the same way, notably falling headlong into the trap of blaming other women for men’s sexism, among other surprisingly basic missteps. Neither an exciting thriller nor a satisfactory (“elevated”) horror metaphor for one of society’s ills, “FRESH” is certified meh. [D]