Studio: Well Go USA
Director: Adam Stein, Zach Lipovsky
Writer: Zach Lipovsky, Adam Stein
Producer: Adam Stein, Zach Lipovsky, Jordan Barber, Mitchell Waxman
Stars: Emile Hirsch, Bruce Dern, Grace Park, Amanda Crew, Lexy Kolker, Aleks Paunovic, Michelle Harrison
After extraordinary abilities begin to manifest, a curious girl uncovers the truth behind why her paranoid father forces them to hide from the outside world.
Chloe has never known a world outside the four walls of her eccentrically disheveled home. The coverings across each window, items haphazardly strewn about, and dusty shafts of pinhole lighting immediately identify the decorator as a possible conspiracy theorist too busy folding tinfoil hats to be concerned with cleanliness.
For the seven years of her short life, Chloe has lived with “Dad,” an earnestly protective man who may or may not have earned that name through biology. “Freaks” purposefully keeps his initial identity in the dark. For the better part of its first half, “Freaks” purposefully keep most of its details out of arm’s reach.
Chloe longs for the same essentials as any kid her age: a mother to replace the one who died, a little make-believe in her bedroom, and especially ice cream. Breaking Dad’s rules against peeking outside, Chloe regularly spots “Mr. Snowcone’s” frozen treat truck conspicuously parked at the curb. What little glimpse she gets of the bright, blown out street beyond her door suggests somewhere simultaneously dreamy and threatening. It wouldn’t be out of place to see two kids skipping rope in slow motion while echoing Freddy Krueger’s rhyme.
The ominous ice cream man wants Chloe to come for a ride, yet not necessarily for the wicked reasons one might sinisterly suspect. His agenda might not be innocent regardless, but Mr. Snowcone claims he can open Chloe’s eyes to the truth behind the ghost in her closet, the “Leave It to Beaver”-like family across the street, and the blood dripping from Dad’s eyes. Dad assures Chloe he only wants to keep her safe, although the more Chloe’s desire for freedom grows, so does her discontent with Dad’s restrictive ways. What Dad fails to consider is that if Chloe uncovers her connection to his perspective of paranoid protection, there will be no chain capable of leashing her.
Clearly, “Freaks” starts cryptically. So cryptically in fact that the mind game of discerning who is really who and what is really what may make the impatient hit their internal Snooze buttons out of annoyance for the breadcrumb build.
Don’t succumb to sleepiness. Immersion comes from submitting to the film’s mystery and allowing its world to gradually bloom around you, exactly as it unfolds for Chloe. “Freaks” chugs with such consistency that by the time it picks up its power to sustain full speed, the film becomes an unstoppable freight train of intrigue and intensity.
In the interest of keeping its secrets somewhat secret, allow me to describe “Freaks” this way. Think of “Brightburn” (review here), but with genuine drama revolving around parental fears and coming of age trauma, not cursory comic book strokes designed as a hollow platform for brutality and bloodshed. “Freaks” shares more in common with “Midnight Special” (review here) as a quasi-grounded take on super-powered people targeted for suppression, albeit rooted in a lightly dystopian country that is as understatedly fascinating as it is undeniably frightening.
Tight acting by the top trio incentivizes investment in the fiction. Practically every person is some amalgamation of selfless commitment to helping others, duplicitous deception, and outright ruthlessness regarding how far they’ll go to see themselves come out on top in a conflict. “Freaks” makes its hay by keeping viewers guessing. Every revelation adds another layer to the story, and the teeter-totter of constantly changing motivations powering each performance maintains that mystique.
Emile Hirsch’s problematic offscreen persona hangs a cloud over the father’s head. Then once a captured imagination accepts his onscreen alter ego as authentic, Hirsch hits enough sweet spots as a doting dad to keep a cute relationship with Chloe. Alternatively, his manic madness equally excels at establishing uncertain danger regarding how much of a good guy he even is.
Ditto Bruce Dern, who puts in a level of work not often seen at this late stage of his long career. Dern’s “Mr. Snowcone” sends out “stranger danger” signals of a sleazy child abductor before effortlessly flipping into a kindly grandfather figure that makes you wonder, “wait a minute.” It’s disconcerting how often the camera set at kid’s-eye-view stares at the white whiskers in his nostrils. Nevertheless, Dern’s weirdo ice cream man might be the MVP in terms of how much he causes us to question what his individual endgame really is.
Newcomer Lexy Kolker couldn’t be more admirably adorable as Chloe. As with everyone else though, she can be just as obnoxious when she moves into brat mode. It’s precisely the dichotomy her character calls for. Credit co-directors Adam Stein and Zach Lipovsky for setting everyone to the same dials, and kudos to the cast for recognizing when and how hard to hit their switches.
Subtly lit cinematography stages “Freaks” in a perfect place for a slightly askew near-future with an intangibly otherworldly quality. The film takes place in a reality relative to our own, or a version of it anyway, while retaining a sense of existing in its own separate space. Casually handheld camerawork amplifies that environment. It’s not the herky-jerky “NYPD Blue” style, but the guerrilla “Friday Night Lights” method that makes it seem like the camera is an unnoticed fly-on-wall merely capturing candid moments.
“Freaks” grows more and more engrossing as it rolls forward. This isn’t metahumans emptily flying around, rebounding bullets with steel skin or firing destructive beams from burning eyeballs. Nor is this too “real” of a take dragged down by unnecessary dialogue or trope deconstruction. Lipovsky and Stein’s script cleverly integrates specific superpowers into plotting that leads to unexpectedly satisfying storytelling payoffs. “Freaks” is a film that is dark and occasionally dour. It’s also heroic and hopeful, ultimately ending as a uniquely entertaining, even enlightening take on relationship rifts as examined under an unusual lens.
Review Score: 80