FREAKS, written and directed by Zach Lipovsky and Adam B. Stein, is a sci-fi thriller starring Bruce Dern, as the mysterious Mr. Snowcone, an ice-cream man who kicks it in a flashy, old school ice cream truck; newcomer Lexy Kolker as Chloe, a gifted girl bewildered by the strange world around her; and Emile Hirsch, as her seemingly overprotective, bearded father.
I thought FREAKS was going to be a movie about attractive weirdos in high-school, but it turned out to be about an alternative world, similar to the X-Men canon, where humans gifted with superpowers are persecuted by boring normies ruling an authoritarian society. The city is filled with posters warning of the danger of freaks, identified by blood streaming out of their eyes, an homage to the psychically talented father in Stephen King’s Firestarter.
The plot unfolds as Chloe, who looks a bit like a young Drew Barrymore with similiar mannerisms, explores the limits of her home, so unlike the normal family next door. Poor Chloe is isolated from society with a weirdo Dad who warns her that there are people outside who wish to harm her. But perhaps weirdo Dad was right.
Like Chloe, we learn more about this bizarre world from Bruce Dern’s delightfully gruff grandfather, Mr. Snowcone, the ice-cream man who is actually a freak, who once rebelled against the anti-freak government. Of course, he wants to mentor his granddaughter. But who is the right mentor, her father or her granddad? Is it better to hide or to fight? Is violence ever acceptable? Man, these are high-minded questions for a child who simply misses the love of her mother.
Many horror films focus on our unconscious fears: fear of heights, fear of dogs, fear of intimacy. But stories about the persecuted gifted – those with paranormal talents – is a fear of what? Fear of people who are more intelligent, more talented, more attractive, more athletic…people who are just more? Is the collective American subconscious really that insecure? Trump’s America? Well, yeah.
Or is it something more innocent? Perhaps we are fascinated by those with otherworldly gifts, maybe we all secretly yearn for superpowers – the ability to read minds, to fold time, to fly. And we identify with freaks or mutants because we want to be Wolverine, Dr. Doom, or Chloe, who can challenge those who intend to harm her loved ones.
The thoughtful production design includes the child’s desperate drawings of supposed ghost visitors, a pastel blue ice-cream truck tricked out with a bubble machine, and a delightful, pop-up book featuring Mr. Snowcone and Chloe as The Princess, reminiscent of the book designed by the mother in The Babadook, only not as creepy.
But FREAKS for me, at least, had one obvious flaw: it was difficult to enjoy Emile Hirsch’s benevolent Dad, considering that in 2015, he assaulted a female executive at the Sundance Film Festival. Apparently, Hirsch is the type of dude who beats up on women when he is angry and as of 2018, he has yet to have made any sort of amends at all. And Hirsch, for some reason, keeps getting work, such as being cast in Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Certainly, it isn’t so freakish to wish for actors who are capable of civil behavior towards women.
FREAKS had its World Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 7, 2018.