Once You Watch ‘Fresh,’ You’ll Never Unsee How It Nails How Relationships Have Become Commodified In The Modern World

Almost everyone who’s ever done the contemporary dating thing knows the perils of lining up in an online meat market. It’s been a thing for quite some time, and it’s a thing that’s grown even worse with a parade of so-called “dating apps.” Fresh, starring Sebastian Stan and Daisy Edgar-Jones, reminded me of an online dating duck-and-run that I’d long since buried. Actually, maybe it wasn’t completely buried, since these things never really leave you. But I came out far better than Daisy Edgar-Jones’ unlucky character, Noa, in Fresh, co-starring Sebastian Stan (as a very bad doctor). Here’s the gist of it, and again, this was years ago: chatted for a few weeks with a fellow, had coffee with him once. Days later, he messaged, saying that he had an urgent situation.

All of this sounds preposterous and unbelievable, even while I type it. The guy wanted to know (at that very moment) whether I felt anything at all. Because money was on the line, you see. He had booked a full-on vacation for some “expedition” in Russia, with some service that arranged to meeting “brides,” all of whom were interested in moving to the U.S. This man (who seemed otherwise “normal,” if that’s quantifiable at all) wanted to gauge, since he only had a few days to cancel the trip and receive a refund (!!), whether I could envision a future with him. He was perfectly cool with canceling his bride-finding mission, meaning that he’d prefer a “free” substitute.

This was the most bizarre sh*t, and so I told him this: Go on that trip.

He responded, much like the guy in the disastrous scarf-date with Noa, that I was the worst person ever and a stuck-up b*tch.

Not that this insult affected me too much on the immediate front. This really didn’t have anything to do with me. The guy simply wanted to, you know, “buy” something (in a way that is apparently legal, even if it sounds Jeffrey Epstein-esque). He was lashing out at what he perceived as a system that was gamed against him. He was gaming his own system, and geez, it’s all so circular and ultimately scary. Yes, this experience is extreme, which probably why I filed it away for so long in my head. Yet it came roaring back due to Fresh, which takes aim at the deals that we make to be in relationships. We all make them, in a way. Much of the time, this doesn’t have to do with money at all. But I think that, in a lot of cases, the art of dating is metaphorically transactional. You’re “buying” the person’s “package,” including baggage, and vice versa. You barter and trade and give away, and so on. And then, at the end, if and when (statistically speaking) a split happens, you might lose part of what you gave them, permanently so.

These are the sort of real-life experiences that are skewered by Fresh, which does critique the dating scene as a meat market, yes. Even more than that, it skewers how people lose parts of themselves while they’re in toxic relationships. And that’s how the meet-cute goes: after Noa endures an endless deluge of a-holes, here comes the perfect match, as we are conditioned to believe happens in movies. And it’s easy to see why she falls for Stan’s character after meeting him in such a normal way, in a place where one literally buys meat. Nice Guy Steve ends up being not only a cannibal but a guy who caters to (and profits mightily from) other cannibals. He sells the perfect romance to Noa, and then he starts to sell her body away. And my god, this all happens in such a terrifying way, with the tiniest of comical twists, because after Noa’s display of resistance, he paralyzes her with an epidural and declares that he’s “taking” her “ass.”

Yep, her ass. Noa eventually ends up escaping (and freeing other women who’ve lost other body parts), and she’ll live just fine after Steve is dead, but she’ll never get her ass back. It’s a good thing she took his d*ck from him because that’s some justice.

There were red flags, of course, that Noa should have seen along the way, but she didn’t pay attention because she’d already felt a little silly while being cautious. Like when she sensed shadowy danger approaching on the street, and it was simply a jolly man (and his baby) harmlessly strolling. These are the balancing acts that women must perform, attempting to figure out what’s safe and what might be ridiculed as an overreaction. Sometimes, being vigilant can grow exhausting, and Noa simply let her (rational) guard down at the wrong moment. Overall, it’s a film that could stay with you, especially when one considers the bargain that Steve’s wife made. She clearly decided that being with him was worth the price of taking down other women. Yup, that was totally transactional and in the worst, Karen-esque way.

Fresh is both a horror film and a rom-com. This film also can’t be summed up as a “Sebastian Stan vehicle to step away from his MCU image” because, man, there have been enough of those already. Ultimately, it is a breezy film and peppered with humor, but it’s sticking with me. It’s a movie that deserves to spark conversation for quite some time. The dance scenes, the charisma, it’s all meant to seduce but, hopefully, to get us to think about an unavoidably complex subject. Boundaries, man. One’s gotta have them in relationships, or you’re nearly selling yourself for free.

Searchlight Pictures’ ‘Fresh’ is currently streaming on Hulu.