Is Fresh the world’s first torture-porn romcom? I have no clue how to go about verifying that claim, but it’s the exact kind of hook this movie needs to reel in an audience. After premiering to positive reviews at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, it was picked up for quick, wide distribution by Searchlight Pictures. That used to entail a gradual, platformed theatrical rollout built on word-of-mouth promotion . . . when Searchlight was owned by Fox. But since Searchlight is now a Disney subsidiary, it means Fresh was unceremoniously dumped on Hulu. It may have topped a few online publications’ “What’s New to Streaming This Week” roundups the weekend it premiered, but in a month or so it will have effectively disappeared from the public consciousness. So, let’s go ahead and confidently call Fresh the world’s first torture-porn romcom so it has fighting chance to get noticed at all; researching that claim could only spoil the fun.
The first half-hour of Fresh is pure romcom. Or it’s at least the kind of “indie” romcom about messy, listless twentysomethings that regularly premiere at Sundance year after year: Obvious Child, Together Together, The Big Sick, etc. Daisy Edgar-Jones stars as a Los Angeles transplant who’s struggling to survive the anguish of first-date awkwardness in the Tinder era. Some of the indignities of modern dating are genuinely harrowing, like the threat of unsolicited dick pics or the threat of violent physical retaliation after even the gentlest rejection. Mostly, though, her dates with self-absorbed losers literally named Chad are played for cutesy comical effect. Her luck turns around when she meets an eerily handsome & charming bachelor played by Sebastian Stan, who appears both well-adjusted and genuinely interested in her as a person; he’s the only potential match who asks her questions about herself, anyway. It’s when they officially pair up that the opening credits finally roll, and the film perverts its modern romcom trappings with some unexpected torture porn viciousness. I won’t reveal too much of the post-twist premise, but I’ll at least advertise that it encourages Stan to chew more than just the scenery as Edgar-Jones’s romantic foil, and he is ravenous.
Fresh‘s straight-to-streaming distribution path isn’t the only reason it needs a killer hook. This is cute, sick stuff, but it ultimately doesn’t have much to say as anything but a style exercise. You could sum up its entire thematic scope as a morbidly literal interpretation of the idiom “Dating apps are meat markets,” which is potentially a problem for a horror comedy’s two full hours in length. The style is substance in this case, though, not only in the tension of its competing torture-porn/romcom tones but also in how first-time director Mimi Cave relentlessly disorients the audience with twirling camera work. It’s especially impressive as a COVID-era production, given that most scenes only involve one-to-three actors sharing the screen at any time, but it doesn’t feel dramatically constrained by pandemic precautions the way a lot of recent thrillers do. There’s a hungry audience out there who would appreciate what Fresh is doing if they only knew it existed, which is why I’m pushing to brand it with its own unique genre-mashup superlative. There have been plenty of other cannibal comedies & romantic horrors over the years, so let’s give this one its own title to defend as the first of its niche: the torture-porn romcom.