Travis Leamons // Film Critic
The superhero craze in Hollywood is a great time to be alive for comic book fans. In the past, I’ve acknowledged that these types of movies were making traditional action movies and stars obsolete. But maybe I had my genres wrong. Superhero movies are more like movie westerns of the 1950s and ‘60s. Everywhere. Telling simple stories of good versus evil, these confectionary movie morsels for the masses are gaining traction with younger viewers that can identify with these unassuming heroes.
As the genre succeeds, though, familiarity breeds contempt. We need a shot of adrenaline to end the malaise every now and again. Matthew Vaughn did that with KICK-ASS. Ryan Reynolds broke the fourth wall and box office records as Deadpool. Christopher Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT re-wrote the Best Picture voting practices for the Academy Awards after it was snubbed.
Now we have FREAKS, a film that explores how humankind would truly react if they learned supernatural beings were living amongst them. The answer: They would panic and let their unexplained fear consume them. Just imagine a mother telling her son he can’t play outside with the boy a few houses down because he’s “different.” So she shies him to play with those who are “normal.” (Xenophobic, much?)
At the film’s onset, an overprotective “Dad” (Emile Hirsch) is safeguarding his daughter, Chloe (Lexy Kolker), from venturing outside their home. It’s daylight; the curtains are closed, and fabric rips are covered in strips of duct tape. Some unspeakable horror has occurred, but we (like Chloe and her dad) are in the dark.
Dark, and living in squalor. Stained walls, raggedy clothes, balls of dust caking the floors. Chloe doesn’t question the ramshackle conditions, but her curiosity of going into the world her father continuously rallies against grows. As is her cognitive abilities.
Visions of her mother (Amanda Crew), who supposedly died years ago, start to happen more frequently. One day, Chloe’s love of cold treats makes her sneak out to visit the neighborhood ice cream man, “Mr. Snowcone” (Bruce Dern in a fine supporting turn). But for Chloe, her sweet tooth and inquisitiveness create a bigger mess than dealing with a melted ice cream cone. Chloe is different. She has abilities that others do not. She would be considered a threat and executed if they knew the truth. She’s also seven years old. Let that sink in – a national security threat at seven.
FREAKS is a disorienting viewing experience. It gives off the vibes of a thriller, echoing 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE – with a captor and a captive – only here we have a father and daughter. Though, even that relationship seems malleable at first. As the story develops, the genre starts to bend like a strand of light refracting through a window’s ratty, torn curtains. The thriller becomes a comic-book fantasy with big scale implications made on a small scale. Dad’s reasons for protecting Chloe start making sense, and Mr. Snowcone’s own interest in Chloe is motivated by those who castigate “Abnormals” (slang: Freaks) and want them corralled and slaughtered.
Filmmakers Zach Lipovsky and Adam B. Stein have designed a feature that subverts the superhero genre offering a story with a fresh perspective on those with unique abilities. Chloe is a girl that is different who wants normalcy. She wants freedom. She and others like her are not afforded these inalienable rights.
Methodically paced, what could have easily been besieged by superhero trappings has some emotional lift thanks to Lexy Kolker as Chloe. The precocious girl with rat-strewn hair and well-worn clothes steals the movie from bigger named stars Emile Hirsch and Bruce Dern. Now Hirsch is hard to peg as Dad. He means well but is so protective of his daughter that it gravitates to Crazytown levels. Then, there’s Bruce Dern as the enigmatic Mr. Snowcone. Both are functional loons (able to use a can opener and drive ice cream trucks, that sort of thing), but don’t come across as someone to entrust responsibilities at a fast-food restaurant or post office.
Back to Lexy Kolker. Total star. When you see FREAKS, you’ll see why. She radiates in spite of her falling-down surroundings. Gravitating between moments of anger and idle threats to warmth and tenderness, Kolker displays a range that would freak out the child actors that comprise the Losers’ Club (IT) and the Party (STRANGER THINGS). It’s a credit to Lipovsky and Stein, who both write and direct. They take chances with the story, even if it means risking losing those who aren’t given a clear indication of where the story is headed. It is because of its slow-burn structure and its themes of classifying normal versus different, and being free that FREAKS is not of the same attitude seen in Marvel’s towering cinematic universe. Just what we need.
FREAKS is now playing in select theaters. Check local listings to find out where it’s available near you.