Freak Show: well-meaning but half-baked teen drama
By Fergus Henderson.
Billy Bloom (Alex Lawther) is different. He is a preternaturally talented teen drag queen, fully out, transferred by his buttoned down father into the most aggressively hetero normative private school in North America. Amongst the mean girls and jocks of his new school, he dresses like Adam Ant and performs book reports in character as Zelda Fitzgerald. He quotes Oscar Wilde in witty voiceover and idolises his untameable, ever-absent diva mother (Bette Midler), channelling her spirit when applying make-up in his show-biz mirror. Before long he will be fighting against the homophobic slings and arrows of conservative America in microcosm.
Freak Show, the directorial debut of long time producer Trudie Styler, is a film that knows what films like it are supposed to do. It is a coming of age dramedy about the value of acceptance and the necessity of questioning gender norms. Styler uses her extensive experience to ensure that the film constantly hits all the right notes as its races through its narrative. All the characters you might expect are here: the closeted bully, the jock with a sensitive side, the bible thumping mean girl, the macho gym teacher, the estranged father, etc. We are never in doubt as to what kind of film we are watching.
It has three distinct sections in the manner of three separate films, charting Billy’s trials and victories in his new environment, each section ushered in by a dramatic set piece. At first it is a tale of bullying and individuality, then it is a drama about family estrangement and friendship, then a comedy about Billy’s bid for homecoming queen.
I draw attention to this because it is rather noticeable, and in the abstract this is what films generally do, progressing through a variety of emotional terrains. Freak Show, however, seems to rush through each new section, doing what it expects itself to do in order to reach the next one. Thus it is never fully any of the films it is trying to be. Aside from the aforementioned set pieces it never truly allows any one scene to breathe, its focus somewhat lacking throughout. After a while the film starts to look like a series of tropes, strung together to form a coherent but lightweight narrative. It becomes a little performative.
This is all rather disappointing, as its source material is the novel of the same name by infamous Club Kid James St James. St James’s own story is a wild and salacious one, and yet whatever wicked energy might have been in the original script seems to have been toned down, presumably so that the film can reach a wider audience. From recent teen films like The Edge of Seventeen all the way back to pensive stoner classic Dazed and Confused we know that teen films can take risks, can use strong language, can be frank about sex and drugs. Why, then, would this film, based on a book written by one of the all-time party animals, be so tame?
Luckily for us, the main players are strong. Lead actor Alex Lawther is a unique screen presence, sliding gracefully around the frame, coy yet charismatic. He draws from a deep emotional well, bringing dignity and nuance to his character. As a Brit with a background in more underground fare he is naturally at odds with the rest of his brash, straight-ahead American cast. He floats above and through the film, always one step ahead.
Brief turns from Bette Midler as Billy’s boozy mother and a feisty Laverne Cox as a local new reporter breathe life into the film. It says something about the tepid script that these sadly truncated characters move the story along more than the other main characters, who are left to tread water, doing what they can with their formulaic arcs.
When the film cannot rely on its frequently expository dialogue to clue you in to how you should be feeling, a bland soundtrack descends, utilising the EDM-lite sounds of inspirational adverts to move things along. With the exception of the film’s strongest scene, in which Billy is violently attacked to the haunting ‘Queen’ by Perfume Genius, the soundtrack is uninspired and overbearing. This, in a film whose aesthetic is rooted in drag culture, is baffling.
Once the film enters its third act it picks up some steam, the film finding a good if generic antagonist in cheerleader cum religious zealot Lynette (Abigail Breslin), who explicates the film’s larger political relevancy (a certain odious American politician may be invoked). Unfortunately this sudden clarity of narrative purpose arrives too late for it to feel consequential.
This is certainly a film with an important message, and a much stronger film might emerge in a re-edit which emphasised longer scenes and more defined characterisation. Unfortunately it is too slight and non-committal to hit its marks, and save for a wonderful lead performance from Alex Lawther it does not have enough to recommend.
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