The horror thriller Fresh, directed by Mimi Cave and written by Lauryn Kahn, premiered at this year’s Sundance festival and on Hulu on March 4, 2022. It tells the story of Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones), a young woman disillusioned with dating until she meets charming cosmetic surgeon Steve (Sebastian Stan). Noa throws caution to the wind and accepts to go on a weekend getaway with her new boyfriend. She promptly finds herself fighting to survive his appetite for young women’s flesh. The film aims to be a darkly comedic tale about the horrors of modern dating and the commodification of women’s bodies. However, the film minimizes men’s role in enacting and upholding patriarchal violence; stopping and/or reinforcing the system that (literally) cannibalizes them is up to the women only. This raises the question: who is this movie for? And what is it trying to tell us about the patriarchy?
In the film’s opening sequence, Noa walks alone to her car after a bad dinner date. She feels as if she’s being followed and rushes towards her car, keys between her knuckles in case she has to physically defend herself. It’s a very familiar and anxiety-inducing situation for any female spectator in a world where women are taught how to prevent their own assaults while simultaneously being told that #NotAllMen are a threat. After a string of bad experiences on dating apps, stranger Steve chats her up in the supermarket and asks for her number. Noa is intrigued and lets her guard down. When Steve suggests a weekend getaway after their second date, she readily accepts. Her best friend Mollie (Jonica T. Gibbs) is not as thrilled about the idea, highlighting red flags. Despite the warnings, Noa leaves with Steve and is promptly drugged and imprisoned in Steve’s home in the middle of nowhere.
Distraught that she walked into a trap, Noa asks Steve if he will sexually assault her. Steve informs her that her situation is much more horrific: he will surgically remove and sell her flesh little by little to fellow cannibals. It is evident that Steve exploited Noa’s desire for an easy romantic connection to win her trust. Noa discovers that he did the same to Penny (Andrea Bang), Noa’s neighbor in Steve’s dungeon. Women are accustomed to being wary of men as a form of survival in a world where gendered violence is an everyday occurrence. But when suitors seem to be “nice” or “good” guys, it is not unreasonable to relax. Often, men like Steve count on other men’s blatantly sexist behavior to lower women’s standards. And unfortunately, there are serious risks to being wrong about an apparent Mr. Right, as Noa learns.
Mollie begins to suspect her friend is in danger, and goes to her ex-fling and bartender Paul (Dayo Okeniyi), who was working at the bar Noa and Steve went to on their first date, for information. Mollie tries to take matters into her own hands, but when she, too, disappears, it seems like Paul will be the hero they need. Paul does not hear from Mollie for an entire day before he resolves to follow the pin he received to Steve’s lair. The scene is reminiscent of the iconic final scene in Jordan Peele’s Get Out when Chris is unexpectedly rescued by his best friend. But in Fresh, in a clever anti-climactic scene, Paul hears gunshots and leaves in fear, just as Noa, Millie, and Penny are escaping. This scene complete’s Paul’s arc, showing how his decisions throughout the film deprive the women of much-needed help. He initially believes she is overreacting as he is slow to understand or empathize with Mollie’s urgency at finding her friend. He then avoids getting involved for as long as possible, and at the end abandons them. Despite being the one “good” man in the story, the women in the film cannot rely on him to escape their situation because he cannot conceive how dangerous it could be.
Throughout the film, Noa and Penny try to support each other in this hopeless predicament, checking in with one another and bonding over their feelings about Steve. A note from a past victim encourages her to fight and use Steve’s genuine attraction to Noa against him. Noa is then able to devise a successful plan to incapacitate Steve and escape. In the film’s most action-filled and bloodiest sequences, the three women team up and are able to defeat Steve in physical combat while protecting each other. Throughout the sequence, they often put themselves in harm’s way to guarantee their victory. It is a noticeable contrast to Paul’s self-centeredness.
In one of the final scenes, Steve’s wife and accomplice Ann (Charlotte Le Bon) walks into Steve’s lair and finds the carnage left behind by her husband and the three women. She stumbles upon Steve’s corpse and, when faced with a confused Noa, she attempts to strangle her. Mollie comes to her rescue and kills Ann, screaming: “I asked you for help! Bitches like you are the fucking problem!”. Mollie is furious that Ann betrayed the sisterhood that often helps women survive the patriarchy by giving her up to Steve when she asked for help to locate Noa. Ann is indubitably part of the problem. It would be difficult to argue that she is also a victim. She stayed by Steve’s side for years, aiding and abetting his crimes despite being free to run and report him. She chose to side with him even after his death. It is even implied that she is jealous that Steve was attracted to Noa and actively pursued her. However, it is not accurate to call Ann “the problem” when Steve was the one that actually kidnapped Noa, then her, and jailed them with the intention of trafficking them.
Ann, and women like her, help uphold the patriarchy, but they are just one of the many groups that keep the oppressive system thriving. The primary focus should ideally be on the men that abuse, assault, and traffic feminized bodies. They are the biggest benefactors and the most violent enforcers of our sexist society. But in the world of Fresh, men are either misogynists like Steve and Noa’s bad dates, or apathetic bystanders like Paul. They hold the power, but only women can shift the imbalance. When Noa, Mollie, and Penny are not careful enough, they end up in a gruesome worst-case scenario, reminding viewers that while not all men will be abusers, all women are at constant risk of violence. The film also acknowledges that institutions such as the police offer little protection. Mollie knows she will be dismissed if she reports her friend missing, and Paul reminds himself that he is a Black man in a white man’s property and cannot win if the situation escalates.
In the end, the young women escape by banding together against Steve, but they do so with incredible difficulty and with a high risk of not surviving. They are forced to push through the pain of their surgical wounds and Steve’s assaults. While it can be satisfying to see survivors take down their abuser, it is depressing and disheartening that they had to do it on their own. The film accurately represents the impotence, the fear, and the violence that women face in our society, as well as the lack of solidarity to our plight. However, it seems to reaffirm the belief that it is solely women’s project to dismantle the patriarchy, despite the massive disadvantage it puts us in.