After spending some time on the festival circuit in 2018, and providing a fan screening during 2019’s San Diego Comic-Con, genre-bending Freaks finally gets the theatrical treatment. Freaks relies far more on character work than action and writing/directing team Zack Lipovsky and Adam B. Stein (Kim Possible TV movie) put their cast, featuring the likes of Emile Hirsch (Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood), Bruce Dern (The Hateful Eight), Grace Park (Hawaii Five-O), and Amanda Crew (The Age of Adaline), to incredible use. Not that there isn’t a bit of spectacle, but that’s not the focus. Instead, Freaks is a film which trades in paranoia, the kind where audience presumption gets them into trouble as they try to stay ahead of the story instead of giving themselves over to the journey.
Chloe Reed (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D’s Lexy Kolker) is your average seven-year-old. She has imaginary friends, knows that apples come in various shades and flavors, and loves ice cream. What sets Chloe apart from other children is that her father (Emile Hirsch) never lets her leave the house, look out the window, or communicate with anyone. He tells her that bad people want to hurt her and grills her over and over about how to be normal, how not to be spotted, and how to pretend to be someone else. All Chloe wants is a family, to be told she’s loved and to be loved, but as children are wont to do, Chloe defies her father and leaves the house when the ice cream truck comes to the neighborhood. What seems like an ordinary activity for most children is merely the catalyst which sets Chloe’s entire world on fire.
The opening of Freaks tells you everything you need to know, even if you don’t yet understand. The slightly off-key music of a nearby ice cream truck, hazy images of a house and a child intercut with the title cards, a little girl trying to look through a window. In this one sequence, Lipovsky and Stein lay the groundwork for what follows, playing on the usual creepy-child-locked-in-a-decrepit-house tropes. Of the myriad of ways Lipovsky and Stein could structure the film, using Chloe as the way in makes the most sense and helps maintain a haze over the narrative. Are things as dangerous as Dad says or does it seem dangerous because she’s a child and doesn’t understand? Her lack of knowledge not only serves as the audience’s entry point for information, but as the perspective from which the whole story plays out. Rarely is there a camera angle above Chloe’s height and explicit explanations are kept to a minimum. While this particular aspect will likely frustrate general audiences, the fact that information is spoon-fed to Chloe and, by extension the audience, makes the story feel more grounded. Chloe and her dad aren’t playing to an audience, so they speak to each other with a certain amount of confidence and clarity. They each know to what the other refers, enabling the story to maintain an energetic clip even while setting up the rules of the story. Here is, however, the best part of Freaks: its inherent rules require change. Chloe has been raised with a truth. It’s kept her safe, while also keeping her hidden. She’s desperate for something more than the life she has with her father. This pull exists for all people, no matter their circumstance; to want more than what they’ve grown to know. In this way, Freaks weaponizes Chloe’s natural inclination to explore, to break free from the hermit life of her father’s making, in order to set the action in motion.
Like a snake shedding its skin to reveal its true self, Freaks doesn’t exactly molt as it does add layers: first there’s Chloe’s coming of age story, then a dab of psychological thriller is added as she (and we) try to find out if Dad’s a protector or threat, along with a socio-political element which comes in the form of the titular freaks. With each layer of truth exposed, new questions arise. Refreshingly, no explicit answers are given. The mere suspicion of being a freak can lead to assault, detainment, and execution. The reasons for why and who the catalyst was are bread-crumbed throughout the film, each new nugget of information unleashing a whole new perspective on the preceding events, no matter what they mean to Chloe. Instead, Freaks slowly reveals itself as an allegory for our modern socio-political climate where everyone is considered a threat until they’re not. What matters here is the reactions of the populace in regards to those who could be innocent people. With the new layer exposing the existence of freaks and how people react to them, the film reveals what truly propels the story: fear. People do plenty of irrational things when they’re afraid and, the audience presumes, that Chloe is the innocent one in her circumstance, but what happens if there’s a suggestion otherwise? How does that make the audience feel about Chloe? Her father? The world at large? In one fantastically blocked sequence, a character is asked what they would do, what they would sacrifice, to protect their child. It’s a question most can empathize with, yet where is the question itself coming from? A place of peace and hope or terror? Perception creates truth and as Chloe’s shifts, so does the audience’s, leading to a conclusion with an excitingly unclear resolution.
As strong as the direction, narrative, and themes are, none of them work without the actors. Hirsch’s manic performance is pitch perfect, pushing audience presumptions from one end of the spectrum to the other in the first act all the way through his emotional arc in the third. Dern is the perfect antithesis to Hirsch: confident, assured, and prickly as hell. If Hirsch’s performance is nurturing softness, doing hard things for the sake of his child, then Dern’s is a sledgehammer, delivering lines with concussive force. Park has the difficult job as Agent Cecilia Ray, needing to simultaneously be both carrot and stick. Lipovsky and Stein designed the character to be smart and strong, all of which Park conveys with undeniable ease. Crew is given the least to work with of all the characters, yet her interactions with the cast surprise by forming the emotional anchor of the whole film. The expectation is for that position to be Chloe’s and it’s here where the writers should be lauded, because it’s an unexpected place to find the emotional core of the film. The linchpin, however, is Kolker. If you’re familiar with her work on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., then Chloe isn’t too much of a stretch for the actor, however, her performance here is frequently frightening. Kolker creates a conflicting feeling within the audience, one which is filled with terror for Chloe’s safety as well as for her violent potential. To say more would spoil the fun, but it’s worth acknowledging how convincingly Kolker conveys the uncontrollable rage of a young child believing themselves to be in desperate need.
Equal parts socio-political drama, sci-fi action, psychological thriller, and coming-of-age story, Freaks is an absolute slow burn, adding layer upon layer until it vibrates with possibilities. The best thing an audience can do is go in as blindly as possible. The trailers themselves give away enough to tempt curious audiences, and also show too much as to ruin the numerous surprises in store. The greatest surprise is how audiences who buy-in fully will find themselves emotional by the ending, either in joy or grief, it does not matter. It only matters that they feel something, which seems to be the Lipovsky and Stein’s goal. Theirs is a tale which works as both entertainment and social commentary, but it’s at its strongest when it asks the audience the seemingly innocent question: what you would do if you see a “freak”? The answer is personal and subconsciously shapes how audiences react to the ending. So stay sharp, stay alert, and keep your eyes open. As they say in Freaks, they can look like anyone.
In theaters nationwide September 13th, 2019.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.