The story of the young queer outsider rallying against the conservative restrictions of high school life is a bread-and-butter, tried-and-true narrative of queer cinema. There are endless variations on this theme, most of them derivative of the other, covering the same well-toiled ground with a story easily relatable and digestible. The feature directorial debut of Trudie Styler, ‘Freak Show’, certainly fits into that tried-and-true mould, but the variation here is a tad more aggressive and imaginative, making it a familiar yet refreshing film and a good fit as the opening night feature of the 2018 Melbourne Queer Film Festival.
While his mother Muv (Bette Midler, 'Hocus Pocus', 'The First Wives Club') is off travelling, flamboyant teenager Billy Bloom (Alex Lawther, 'The Imitation Game', Netflix's 'The End of the F'ing World') is forced to live with his father William (Larry Pine, 'The Royal Tenenbaums', Moonrise Kingdom, TV's 'House Of Cards'). Refusing to comply to the societal constraints of a privileged Southern high school, Billy embraces his individuality, much to the horror of his classmates. After a brutal attack, Billy makes friends with school sports star Flip (Ian Nelson, 'The Boy Next Door', 'The Best Of Me'), but when even that precious friendship is threatened, Billy comes up with a plan to turn the social hierarchy of the school completely on its head.
'FREAK SHOW' TRAILER
Based on the book by James St James, adapted to the screen by Patrick J. Clifton and Beth Rigazio, ‘Freak Show’ wears its familiarity on its sleeve, much to its advantage. There’s nothing particularly revelatory about it, especially in the wake of the recent wave of queer cinema classics, but it overflows with oodles of charm and an astute awareness of what a familiar narrative it is. A lot of this comes down to the approach from Styler - the film certainly betrays the messiness that can come from a first-time director, but its her position as a first-timer that also allows her to approach the film in far more imaginative ways. Working with legendary cinematographer Dante Spinotti, Styler develops a distinct visual approach that aims to place us within Billy’s POV while he’s still in the frame. There’s a cheeky intimacy to the look of this film, playing with unusual angles, alternating forms of digital footage and moments of music video-style panache. There’s also the wonderful costume design (co-designed by Colleen Attwood) that does a significant portion of the storytelling as we chart Billy’s journey, from radical to restrained to full-blown glamour queen. Again, none of this is revelatory, Clifton and Rigazio’s screenplay still sticking very much to the mould and falling into a number of annoying clichés (such as Billy’s almost pointless narration). It does avoid a few obvious ones (romance between Billy and Flip is thankfully never explored outside of schoolyard bullying) and there’s a lovely spark that elevates the film into something a bit more technically interesting and occasionally sophisticated.
There’s nothing particularly revelatory about it, especially in the wake of the recent wave of queer cinema classics, but it overflows with oodles of charm and an astute awareness of what a familiar narrative it is.
Alex Lawther has been on the fringe of breaking out for a few years now, and his performance as Billy certainly allows him to spread his wings further than the restrained and tortured performances he gave in ‘The Imitation Game’ (2014) and ‘Goodbye Christopher Robin’ (2017). He erupts with charisma and bursts with energy as Billy, embracing his gorgeous femininity without every making it feel insincere or a caricature. Lawther is the centrepiece of the film and its greatest asset, and this is something the film is not only aware of but celebrates. He is surrounded by a surprisingly strong cast - AnnaSophia Robb (‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’) as Billy’s best friend BlahBlah (because he doesn’t remember her name), Abigail Breslin (‘Little Miss Sunshine’, ‘August: Osage County’) as the God-loving cheerleader-from-hell Lynette, as well as great work from Pine and Midler (I mean, half of the delight of seeing Bette Midler on screen is just seeing Bette Midler on screen). Ian Nelson is devastatingly charming and goofy as Flip, which makes up a lot for his lack of rigour compared to Lawther. The two have a lovely chemistry though, which makes their initially odd friendship feel more genuine. Yet as housemaid Florence, Celia Weston quietly steals the film, providing the tough love that Billy needs mixed with winning barbs and a love that is really genuine. It’s a really strong cast (including cameos from Laverne Cox and John McEnroe), once again elevating the material.
‘Freak Show’ isn’t the kind of film that’s going to revolutionise queer cinema. It keeps within the tight framework that we’ve become very familiar and often tired with. However, its secret weapon is how aware of this it is, and how much it embraces it. This is a charming, hilarious and assured first feature from Trudie Styler, featuring a strong message of acceptance and a terrific performance at its centre. You won’t be disappointed letting your freak flag fly with this one.