Noa, lead character of the new film Fresh, has a problem. The single urban woman (Daisy Edgar-Jones) is understandably bored with her social life. Her current boyfriend is only interested in two conversational topics: his diet and a running critique of Noa’s choice of wardrobe. Ugh. On top of that, whenever she ventures forth alone after dark from her tastefully decorated loft, Noa is—again, understandably—fearful of every approaching shape. Her best friend Mollie (Jojo T. Gibbs) is worried about Noa’s situation as well, especially after her friend’s complaint that “I always end up alone.”
And so, when Noa gets approached in the supermarket produce section by a decent-looking, fairly articulate guy who, as he explains, is a doctor, we’re not terribly surprised that suddenly she starts wearing that “windfall jackpot” expression on her face. Steve-the-new-guy (Sebastian Stan) talks the talk; he specializes in “reconstructive surgery,” walks the walk and lives in expensive surroundings—shot in Vancouver, B.C. What’s more, Steve informs Noa that, “I don’t eat animals.” First-date sex is an easy step from there.
We pause in our basic-synopsis due-diligence to note that neither Noa nor Steve sports the usual glib trappings of ostentatiously well-educated, upscale urbanity. That is, neither of them would automatically qualify as a Noah Baumbach character. Nor especially as, say, a Lisa Cholodenko creation, nor anyone from the Sofia Coppola or the Paul Thomas Anderson Licorice Pizza playbook. As Noa puts it: “I hate, like, dating.” No media-savvy or literary traits here. The concept of irony is a vague stranger to the conversation.
We do notice some squirm-worthy things about Steve that Noa seems to overlook. His lack of backstory, no wi-fi in his lavish home and—here’s the kicker—he does not have an Instagram account. What kind of person is that? He generally seems wary of giving away too much info about himself. Uh-oh. Also, there are things Noa couldn’t possibly see, things that appear to us onscreen: lots of close-ups of chewing mouths, in fact too many close-ups of body parts in general. Watch out, Noa.
At this point, about halfway through former music-video-maker Mimi Cave’s debut as a feature-film director—screenplay by girls-gone-wild specialist Lauryn Kahn (Ibiza)—we’re finally starting to get down to the nut-formula of confused-consumer Noa’s predicament. Warning: Those who want to be surprised by an obvious plot development should stop reading immediately. Mad doctor/sicko “gourmet” lures, imprisons and then butchers young women, in order to sell their meat to fellow rich-sicko clients, for high prices.
We don’t often think of Searchlight or Disney in terms of cheapo horror—as for the Sundance Film Festival, no surprise, they’ll always take a chance. In Fresh the filmmakers don’t appear especially interested in showing any character traits beyond the obvious with Noa and Steve. Only people who are dating talk like this to each other. She’s conveniently shallow and passive; he’s a garden-variety loathsome date-rape-type cheater unafraid to act out his horrible fantasies and turn a profit on them.
Apart from a few brief scenes in which we observe Steve at home with his wife—evidently she’s a victim who he allowed to live and upgraded to spouse status—there’s no indication that he does anything else with his time other than hunt down unsuspecting females. No “long pig” or Donner Party jokes, just deadpan business as usual, with the slight topicality of Steve referring to his fiendish clientele as “the 1% of the 1%.” Our old acquaintance, the banality of evil, takes up nearly the entire running time, with the action stretched out nearly to the breaking point.
Fresh emerges as a routine shockeroo trying desperately to be a meaningful, up-to-date reflection of the scary times we live in. Or at least to gross us out. Neither of which takes place.