Being deemed an outcast – or a freak – by neighbors, friends, coworkers, even strangers has always been one of humanity’s prevailing fears. Those fears have been intensified in our digital age; souls are laid bare online, in hopes of attaining “likes” as opposed to disdain. Granted, some folks embrace their freakiness – it’s that confidence that may overcome public contempt, and even lead to emulation. Directors Zach Lipovsky and Adam B. Stein’s latest celluloid mind-fuck Freaks plays on our deepest fears of being shunned by society, itself an outcast amongst the deluge of threadbare, formulaic sci-fi flicks. The filmmaking duo isn’t afraid to let their freak flag fly. Hopefully, there will be more that follow them.
Seven-year-old Chloe (Lexy Kolker) lives with her paranoid father (Emile Hirsch) in a quarantined apartment, golden sunlight barely seeping through the duct-taped, sheet-covered windows. Wildly overprotective, Father (he’s never given a name) ventures out for supplies from time to time, leaving Chloe locked up inside. He claims he’ll let her out when she’s “normal.” “When am I gonna be normal?” she understandably wonders. Judging by her father’s loving-but-crazed, occasionally bleeding (!) eyes, it won’t be anytime soon.
They have a routine established. While Father cleans his gun, Chloe draws pictures. He homeschools her, teaching her things like, “You need to lie to be normal.” They play cards, betting stacks of $100 bills. Before he leaves the house, they go over the escape plan and Chloe’s false identity, just in case something were to happen to him. In the meantime, an ice-cream truck driven by the menacing Mr. Snowcone (Bruce Dern) tempts Chloe into the arms of delicious, forbidden freedom. “You wanna know what’s in that ice cream truck?” Father intones. “Frozen kids’ bodies.”
“…he’ll let her out when she’s ‘normal’…”
Undeterred by Father’s warning, our young heroine ventures outside one day, following a trail of air bubbles right into the maw of Mr. Snowcone’s truck. To reveal the rest of the insane plot would be doing a disservice to both the filmmakers and oblivious viewers, so I’ll just mention key points. Chloe desperately misses her mom (Amanda Crew), who turns up as a (possible) ghost in her ramshackle closet; a mythical “mountain” promises both salvation and annihilation, and Chloe discovers “powers” that make her “abnormal”. There are also pens stabbed through eyeballs, folks disappearing into thin air, time paradoxes and possible teleportation.
That’s quite a bundle of hefty themes, but the filmmakers handle it all deftly…for the most part. There are instances when their house of cards comes dangerously close to collapsing. “Where are you, you invisible asshole?” Father screams, hysterically at one such overwrought point. The convoluted/inflated finale doesn’t quite live up to the alluring promises established beforehand.
The sequences that do work, however, more than makeup for the missteps. Lipovsky and Stein wisely adopt a Spielbergian, low-angle perspective, seeing everything through Chloe’s eyes. Her world’s filtered through a rusty-orange prism that’s both tantalizing and perilous, surreal and mundane (props to cinematographer Stirling Bancroft). Especially in the early scenes, the filmmakers accumulate a palpable, claustrophobic tension and a titillating sense of ambiguity. When Father bursts in through the door, covered in blood – “Most of it is their blood,” he reassures Chloe – his daughter only cares about whether or not he forgot the ice-cream.
“…her tangled-haired Chloe powers the film, grounding the increasingly wild sequences…”
Lexy Kolker, who appears in nearly every scene, is a true star. Subtle and poignant, unnerving and irresistibly charming, her tangled-haired Chloe powers the film, grounding the increasingly wild sequences with her authentic, universal portrayal of a motherless child. She has real chemistry with the always-reliable Emile Hirsch, who pulls off a tricky balancing act of “demented” and “convincing,” potentially dangerous but also a source of comfort and security. As for Bruce Dern – well, the thespian can do no wrong at this point; an effectively menacing presence, he spouts lines like, “Your dad is trying to turn you into a pussy,” like no one else but Dern can.
An antidote to all the mega-budget, dumbed-down, bombastic sci-fi out there, Freaks subtly subverts the superhero formula under the guise of a hallucinatory, cautionary tale of paranoia, delusion and extreme parenthood. In other words, it’s Room meets Invasion of the Body Snatchers meets Carrie meets Tideland. An explosive, utterly original concoction that won’t please everyone but will totally elate the freaks among us seeking something different.