Cynthia Via explores the deliciously horrible urges and undeniable love affair in Mimi Cave's feature debut, Fresh.
In the never-ending roulette of modern dating, there’s no greater peril than ending with a toxic dud. For some of us, finding the perfect person is a mountain that we’re willing to die on. In the film Fresh, directed by Mimi Cave from a screenplay by Lauryn Kahn, Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones) can’t help but focus on finding a perfectly balanced man, and when she finds him in the super market aisle, she’s smitten by his awkward humor and boyish smile. What could be more quaint than meeting in person? The mysterious man is Steve (Sebastian Stan), and with that face, Noa might as well marry him before he gets swooped up by someone else. This sense of desperation, and their undeniably good chemistry, leads Noa to accept his questionable proposal for a weekend outing after just one date.
The film presents the dichotomy of available dating options. On one end of the spectrum is Noa's initial date with greasy hair and shameless criticisms of her lack of femininity. Then, there’s Steve: the modern man with a reputable career and a sense of humor who understands nuance and wears grown-up sweaters. Steve’s career, luxurious home, unencumbered sexuality, and thick turtlenecks give him a sense of worth that spares him from toxic allusions. This illustrates how appearances often hijack our perception and proves that toxicity isn’t always easily identifiable. Though the first date left Noa feeling demoralized, he never moved into dangerous territory, making it impossible to redeem himself. His game was child’s play.
I empathize with Noa’s innocence. She gives strangers a chance until they prove otherwise. Fresh reminds me of going on a risky date with someone I met on a dating app several years ago. On our first date, we didn’t go out to dinner. Instead, we went camping. I wasn’t trying to get myself killed, though after having a long melodramatic breakup with a previous partner, I wanted to cleanse my palate. While it wasn’t wise to venture into a secluded campground and leave my life to chance, I spoke with him for a few weeks, and he reassured me he wasn’t a psycho. Still, I was clearly rushing into an activity mostly under his control as I was new to exploring the outdoors.
Noa’s life may not contain Steve’s surface-level qualities. However, her youthful innocence is what makes her relatable and captivating. Still, she fails to focus on herself, instead relying on a man to give structure to her otherwise aimless existence. She searches outwardly for something that she can only find on the inside and falls for Steve’s appearance and charms as proof of his humanity and kindness. “Your house is intimidating. You’re all like, you know, fancy cocktails. And I’m like pancakes out of a bag,” she tells Steve as he secretly drugs her drink.
Before passing out, Noa says, “we put all our hopes in finding happiness through someone else.” Like her best friend Mollie (JoJo T. Gibbs) alludes to, the straight girl’s fantasy is to find a man who will whisk her away from life’s monotony. The problem lies in the word “fantasy,” and as we learn, this fantasy becomes a nightmare. Steve collects girls. He lures them into his fancy abode, only to butcher them like cattle, turning them into commodities by selling their body parts as gourmet meals. This is a powerful metaphor for how men sometimes reduce women to body parts. For Steve, a woman’s individuality is nothing more than a marketing scheme. He uses his victim’s personal items as a way to connect his clientele to the human meat they receive.
Steve's cannibalism alludes to our toxic dating culture of quickly swiping left and right, tranced by images and tantalizing details rather than genuine interactions. Dating hopefuls show off their airbrushed features in the hopes of finding equally attractive meat. It’s why Noa finds herself in this situation after solely judging someone by their external appearance rather than seeing the writing on the wall, like the painting whose medium includes human teeth on the wall of Steve's house.
Like Noa, I followed my gut instinct, believing in the possibility that strangers can surprise you with kindness. Thankfully, my date was actually a sweet guy, lending me a hoodie and plenty of blankets for the cold. The creepiest point was during the night when we were hiking down a trail with only one flashlight. As I tried not to trip on jagged rocks, I thought of how easy it would be for my date to do something sinister. The next day we had pancakes for breakfast in a cozy diner, then went home. I wasn’t relying on this stranger for happiness but on his sense of adventure to take me out of my monotonous existence. In this way, I relate to Noa because life isn’t worth living without a little adventure, right?
When Noa realizes she can’t escape from her prison, she falls into self-loathing and regrets not having read the signs, like any good millennial (we do have smartphones). Most of all, she failed to trust her best friend, Mollie, the one person who loves her. Through Penny (Andrea Bang), another prisoner, Noa finds strength. “It’s not your fault,” Penny says, further identifying with Noa’s pain. When Noa discovers a message from a previous prisoner, “If you’re reading this, it means he likes you. Use it. Keep fucking fighting. Sending strength.” Both messages are catalysts for Noa to act, emotionally connected to other girls who have suffered the same fate. Horror films often fail to highlight the importance of female support to survive challenging situations. It's often every girl for themselves. Fresh subverts the common trope of male protagonists always saving the day and focuses on female reliance.
To survive, Noa bonds with Steve, pretending to be curious about his gourmet meals and appetite for human flesh. One excruciating bite after the other, she succumbs to Steve’s disturbing appetite to beguile him. This reflects a larger theme that’s ever present in our patriarchal society: in romantic relationships, women are often expected to shut themselves down and completely give themselves to their partners. Steve finds Noa’s empathy to be the ultimate sign of love, as she gives herself over to his form of cannibalism.
When I went on my ill-advised camping date, I was an urban New York City dweller, hardly leaving my shell. I had not ventured much outside the five boroughs and was confined to an intellectually uninspiring relationship. I needed something to jolt me out of my doldrums, and this camping trip motivated my curiosity to travel. If it weren’t for that experience, I wouldn’t have felt as brave to venture to other cities or countries. It also made me realize that I needed to give myself space to decide and reflect when presented with a risky proposal. Though the experience was valuable, it put me in a vulnerable situation, having to rely on only one person, even if he was a kind stranger.
Noa’s motivation to escape shows her resiliency to survive. Ultimately, her self-realization is the love that Noa needs, irrespective of finding a partner or succumbing to his whims. Additionally, she finds support in friendship, which allows her to see beyond emotional impulses. In the end, there is no “Sean Connery” type saving the day or one final girl, but three women and their collective experiences and memories allow them to escape a male-driven nightmare.
Cynthia Via is a writer based in the District of Columbia covering the outdoors, gender, and culture, through reported articles and personal essays, usually dissecting horror and dystopian films with satirical commentary. Her work has appeared in Yes! Magazine, Broad Street Review, Film Cred, and other outlets.