Freaks is a neat little sci fi thriller, heavy on allegory but satisfyingly self-contained – answering all the questions it sets up.
My life is a search for answers, though usually of the “is that chewed-up paper next to the dog my film notes or my son’s homework” variety, so it was gratifying to get my teeth into something on a bigger scale – even if those allegories force us to think about things that some, like the population in Freaks, would rather ignore.
It’s fair to say that while Freaks does have the answers, overall it promises more than it delivers in terms of big ideas.
It’s still a rewarding watch though, particularly early on when its ambiguity leaves us befuddled. It also boasts some terrific performances (though Emile Hirsch’s similarity to Jack Black is rather distracting); and while its low budget sometimes shows, writer-directors Zach Lipovsky and Adam B Stein tease impressive returns from what they had to work with.
Hirsch plays Henry, father to 7 year old Chloe – a child who may or may not have special powers. Chloe is dealing with the presumed death of her mother; her father warning her she’ll die too if she doesn’t do what he says; and a world outside she’s never seen. It’s a lot to carry: Lexy Kolker, who plays her, is wonderfully expressive, with much riding on her always-believable performance.
The world of Freaks is a world pretending life is still normal, even as Abnormals are hunted down and carted off, never to be seen again. Its citizens have learnt that if they’re not directly affected they should just keep looking straight ahead and try their hardest not to be tainted by contact with the Other in their midst.
The tactics are familiar: families split up, armed police coming for them in the middle of the night, citizens urged to report friends and neighbours, Abnormals pressurised to move to the mysterious Mountain where they can live together.
Chloe and Henry live in a dilapidated house in suburbia. He’s told her that her mum was taken away, presumed murdered, years ago; but while he says he’s trying to protect her, his jittery behaviour and lack of sleep makes him as scary as the mysterious outside.
At first it’s not clear if Henry is fighting off killers or simply paranoid, holding his daughter hostage. Hirsch does an excellent job maintaining that ambiguity even as Henry’s responses start to look increasingly hair-trigger. Though soon enough we discover that Henry and Chloe are the Freaks, rather than whatever is outside (which is both a threat and normalised).
Time is porous and movable, adding to the sense of disconnect for us and Chloe. We become so used to the semi-darkness of their home that the glaring brightness when they do open the door feels alien and futuristic.
There’s a lot of weirdness for one house. A strange, shrieking woman appears in Chloe’s walk-in closet. A little girl from over the road also turns up, claiming it’s her bedroom not Chloe’s. Henry’s eyes weep blood. The news reports imply the world outside is more dangerous though, with Dallas destroyed (damn those pesky kids!).
Some of the strangeness she lives with is, in its way, not that dissimilar to what children live with in the real world: imaginary friends and scary closets. Kids’ acceptance of what counts as normality is strong.
In this dystopian America, when little Chloe breaks out of the house she’s shocked to find that the terrifying world outside looks safe and sunny: neatly-mown lawns, cycling kids and a Mr Snowcone icecream van on the corner. To Chloe’s ever watchful and troubled eyes it may still be dangerous but at least it offers ice-cream.
Mr Snowcone (Bruce Dern, a slightly scarier Doc Brown) tempts her to the park before goading her into showing him if she has any special powers. He’s already convinced she’s a Freak.
Dern is great fun, his character’s intentions initially obscured. This pleasing ambiguity doesn’t last long though, as the reality of what Henry is protecting Chloe from, and who Mr Snowcone is, are explained.
There are some inventive details: particularly the Abnormals’ distraction technique of stabbing someone in the eye.
I also loved how Chloe uses her powers; a child’s way of making stuff happen (or stop). Her responses are entirely believable: part child and part ambivalent superhero. She’ll risk everything for ice-cream, questions being asked to lie (“you need to lie to be normal” says her dad), and while she can control her powers has a black and white view of the world, where vengeance is always an option. Unfortunately there’s no exploration of that tension between her abilities and her view of the world until the very end, at which point the way it’s portrayed is a let-down.
Hirsch is terrific; exhausted and so close to the edge he can barely judge situations. The issues with time and the special powers make for a discombobulating atmosphere where his desperation is tangible.
Freaks sets up more interesting questions than the answers warrant; it’s more of a straight-up thriller than deep-thinking sci fi, though it may not offer enough of either to keep fans of each genre happy. As the story unfolds it feels as if special abilities are popping up just when they’re needed, and with Freaks moving to its conclusion the tension dissipates (though the pace ratchets up).
Still, the allegories are clear without feeling laboured. Maybe the lack of backstory adds clarity – as Chloe knows nothing about the world out there, and most of this story is from her perspective, it’s not really necessary.
There’s certainly enough of interest in Freaks to make me want a sequel or a prequel, with more world-building (though I suspect Lipovsky and Stein would present us with a world just like ours).
Note: I’ve put the ending spoiler below.
Watch the trailer below:
CLIP: “Meeting Mr Snowcone”:
CLIP: “How do you know that name?”:
Spoiler: Mr Snowcone (Alan) is Chloe’s grandfather. His daughter Mary is her mother, and it turns out she’s still alive, held captive in the Mountain. The woman in the closet is actually a vision of Mary. Once Chloe knows, she is able to use her powers to help her mum escape. Meanwhile govt agent Ray kills Alan and wounds Henry, who manages to slow down time to get Chloe out of the house before a missile strike – he then dies. Mary flies off at the end with Chloe.