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Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Review: FREAK SHOW Is Stylish But Sloppy

Billy Bloom (Alex Lawther) is fabulous. A gay teenage boy growing up with his hard-drinking wit of a mother (Bette Midler), he was ecstatic. But when his mother goes away, he is left with his father, forced to move down south and attend an ultra-conservative private school. His tendency to dress as a woman - or as one of a variety of richly elaborate costumed identities he comes to school as - quickly alienates him from his classmates, but a savage beating from a handful of bullies that puts him in a temporary coma introduces him to Flip (Ian Nelson), a high school football star who is unusually sensitive -- and happy to be friends with the slowly recovering Billy. Back at school, Billy's social standing doesn't particularly improve, nor does his rocky home life, so when he learns that Lynette, a bullying demagogue of a girl, is running unopposed for Homecoming Queen, he decides to challenge her for the crown.

The film's emotional core -- that Billy can't help but stand out at all times, but he still needs the same love and respect that his classmates deny him -- is where the film works best. Alex Lawther is a dab hand with a catty one-liner, playing his potentially stereotypical gay character so loudly that it circles all the way around cartoonish back to feeling real and earned. Lawther struggles a bit with some of the more emotional material, though part of that has to do with just how blunt that emotional material is. Still, Freak Show is a film that vacillates wildly in its tone, and Lawther is the heart of those shifts, holding together a story that can leap wildly from a 'crazy outfits' montage to a moment of shocking violence, and he mostly pulls it off.

Abigail Breslin is a pretty seasoned young actor at this point, but she can't do a lot to rescue a character as hammy and one-dimensional as Lynette. In the current environment, I understand having a God-fearing, snide Southern girl just coming out and saying things like "Make America Great Again," fits, the character is so slim that she basically only exists as a caricature of a hateful Southern belle. As a concept that certainly works, but it does kind of strand Breslin -- and it doesn't give Billy Bloom a lot to go up against. She's not crafty, not cutting, not clever... as villains go, she doesn't offer much beyond a facile look at modern American conservatism. I'm fine with that, but do something with it; Freak Show never really does. She's obviously the villain, but she's a deeply impersonal villain to end with for a lead who goes through a lot of really bad shit.

Ultimately, the core issues I have with Freak Show come down to its scripting and editing. Important moments are de-emphasized to the point of non-existence, while important characters come from nowhere and vanish for enormous stretches of the film. The big showdown that concludes the film, a race for Homecoming Queen between out-and-proud Billy and Lynette is introduced and resolved within, it seems, the film's final twenty minutes. Indeed, Lynette, who began the film set up as a major antagonist, vanishes for the vast bulk of the film's run time as an enormous chunk of the film's entire midsection is taken up by drama at home.

Look, I get it, adapting novels to film is hard. There's so much material you have to cut, you lose a lot of the interiority of the characters -- or you end up with a ham-fisted voice-over, as we do here. Cut too much, and none of it makes sense; cut too little and the movie can run way too long and feel sluggishly paced. And that's not even getting into structural differences between the two media. But Freak Show runs into so many problems when it comes to adapting its material. Take Mary Jane, for example, who the film introduces out of nowhere to do the typical 'here are all the cliques that will be important to this movie' high school movie thing... and then promptly vanishes. At first, I thought this was supposed to be clever commentary on Billy's self-absorption, but she comes back later in a role that seems semi-important, and Billy's treatment of her is completely ignored, so... why is she in this movie, other than that she had a role in the book? There are a ton of different small moments like this, where it seems clear that three or four different characters really needed to be combined into one, or excised entirely.

The movie Freak Show most reminds me of is 2004's coming-of-age indie, Saved! This was a potent reminder of how easy the Saved! formula can go off the rails. Saved! is another teen coming-of-age movie that dealt with finding your own identity amidst a hyperconservative environment that has a hard time accepting you -- and confronting its own hypocrisy and moral failings. But, where Saved! is incredibly focused, making sure we're reminded of its supporting players regularly and checking in on their conflicts, Freak Show just abandons them until its time for their Big Moment. Why is Bo Bo in this movie? Or Sesame, or Felicia? What impact do they have on the lead? Do they have any arc of their own? Do they want or need anything? Do they even impact the lead's journey? No! They're just... background noise. And that's not even getting into the pointless homages to famous works of art that seem to exist as the weirdest, least relevant outside references I've seen in a film in ages.

Freak Show is, if nothing else, inoffensively pleasant. There are a few moments that I really do love -- the scene where Billy declares that he's running for Homecoming Queen is hilariously overwrought, for example, a weirdly delightful left turn in a movie that had been running a bit on empty for awhile at that point. And it does have one super fun trick up its sleeve, using its extras in a clever way, though it introduces the conceit late in the film and does very little with it in the end. But ultimately, the film just felt a bit too sloppy to really hit home with me. The subject matter is timely and the cast is certainly game, but Freak Show could have been considerably tighter than it ended up being -- and considerably more interesting.

Freak Show is available to rent now on streaming services like Amazon Instant Video. Written by Patrick J. Clifton and Beth Rigazio adapting a novel by James St. James, Freak Show was directed by Trudie Styler. The movie stars Alex Lawther, Abigail Breslin, and Bette Midler.
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