With the glut of big-budget superhero blockbusters, there’s been a bit of a reactionary trend, a wave of smaller “superhero, but…” movies. Most recently think Brightburn, with its “Superman, but evil” concept. We can throw Glass, Fast Color, and more into this category of films that take common superhero tropes and tics, look at them from a different perspective, and filter them through an indie lens, usually grounding them in more reality-based circumstances.
Though it may not appear as such initially, writer/directors Zach Lipovsky and Adam B. Stein’s Freaks fits seamlessly into this realm. To say too much is to give away some of the surprise and joy of discovery, but let’s just say, there’s a marked resemblance to a certain popular superhero comic book and movie franchise that becomes clear as the film progresses. To be fair, there are also definite Firestarter and Carrie vibes as well.
Nothing in Freaks is as it initially appears. We begin with a young girl, Chloe (Lexy Kolker), peeking out a window, wistfully gazing at an ice cream truck. Sounds normal enough, right? Kids love ice cream. But it becomes clear right away that things are very much not normal. Chloe’s father, simply known as Dad (Emile Hirsch, looking like a Tenacious D era Jack Black), yells at her for looking out windows sealed shut and covered. He quizzes her on a fictional, made up life, and tests her reactions, seeing if she can pass as “normal” under interrogation. When Chloe finally has the chance to go outside on her own, she discovers a world beyond anything she ever imagined.
As the narrative builds, it peels back layers and exposes more and more. But the more it reveals, the more questions it poses. Why is Dad so paranoid? Who is the ice cream man (Bruce Dern)? What’s the deal with the neighbors? Why can’t she go outside? Is Dad even Chloe’s father? Weird things happen, like people, maybe ghosts, appearing to Chloe, or strange jumps in time.
Especially early on, Freaks continually sets up and subverts audience expectations. Admittedly, this can be off-putting and even confusing as this puzzle looks more like a jumble and we try to parse the reality of the situation. But as the pieces fall into place and the picture develops, the film settles into a more straightforward narrative. The script deftly reveals the world, beginning with a blank canvas, adding lines and shading that, by the end, coheres into a specific, well-hewn world.
Hirsh captures his character’s paranoia and dread, but also his deep devotion to Chloe. Dern cuts a loopy, mysterious figure that’s both off-kilter and ominous. Amanda Crew and Grace Park round out the core crew with solid supporting turns. The cast is fine and does an admirable job all around. But the real glue of Freaks is Kolker.
The whole film hinges on Chloe and she delivers so much more than just a scared kid performance. She runs the gamut from terror and confusion, to frustration with Dad’s rules, to dark and sinister and mad with power. She exudes a sense of wonder at the world, but also fear at the bizarre things she encounters, and even a shadowy rage—imagine the distilled anger a child feels when they don’t wholly comprehend the why of a situation, yet they feel they’ve been wronged, only in this case, she has the ability to do something about it. She’s harrowing and endearing and it’s remarkable for a performer so young.
Cinematographer Stirling Bancroft uses a lot of handheld camera set ups and films the action from low angles so we see the world from Chloe’s perspective. Visually, it shows her sense of awe and of being overwhelmed. Coupled with warm lighting, it elicits a dreamy, almost unreal sensation that enhances the abnormal feel. Freaks doesn’t rely heavily on special effects, but Lipovsky and Stein use them well to punctuate the action when necessary. Despite the sci-fi and superhero trappings, the story remains tethered to a more familiar reality, simply an enhanced version.
As it becomes clear the story the filmmakers aim to tell, the main thematic push gets clunky. Narrative reveals are handled with such a delicate, intricate touch, that the heavy handed messaging stands out in stark relief as super obvious and over-simplified by comparison. Everything else presents as this elaborate mystery full of misdirects to unravel, but the theme essentially waves its hand and shouts, “Hey, here I am, look at me, look at me!”
The more I sit with Freaks, the more I enjoy it, and the more floored I become at Kolker’s performance. It’s well worth any confusion at the beginning, and to be honest, untangling the mystery is one of the film’s pleasures—it’s nice that the filmmakers trust the audience to accomplish this and don’t feel the need to overexplain. Freaks watches like a unique take on a superhero origin story—I couldn’t help but think of Boy Wonder—that could easily kick off a franchise. There’s an expansive world to explore, and a larger conflict that continues well past the conclusion of this film. I wouldn’t mind going back one bit. [Grade: B+]