If you’ve seen the first Freaks teaser or read the cryptic synopsis, you might be expecting a film filled with curious details and surprises – and you’d be right. Freaks was a wonderful and wild surprise that subverted nearly every single expectation I cooked up based on that trailer. The value of mystery and discovery is high in Freaks so while I encourage you to go in knowing as little as possible, for the sake of this review, I’ll touch on some very light plot details.
The movie stars young Lexy Kolker as Chloe. The Room comparisons are unavoidable here as the movie opens with an unkempt Chloe going about her business in the dark, dusty home her father Henry (Emile Hirsch) insists she cannot leave. Why can’t she go outside? At the start, it’s not quite clear but that draw to the ice cream truck run by Bruce Dern’s character that’s parked right outside is overwhelmingly tempting – even if dad insists that going outside could mean risking their lives.
The claustrophobic intimacy of the first portion of the film is strong. Within minutes it’s abundantly clear that Kolker is one incredible find and that she’ll excel as the anchor in the film. Her one-on-ones with Hirsch are flawless and seamlessly navigate their mysterious relationship. One minute, Henry is loving and warm, but the next he’s locking his precious little girl in a closet – supposedly for her own safety. But is that really the truth or does he have a more sinister agenda we’ve yet to discover?
And directors Zach Lipovsky and Adam B. Stein don’t give you those answers easily. They make you work for it, and it’s well worth the effort because, one, their presentation is extremely engrossing and, two, those answers are connected to some wildly fascinating rules and world-building. Every scene in Freaks has value. They function as pieces of the narrative puzzle and they’re also key to Chloe’s development. Whether we’re talking about something that happens to her directly or perhaps another character’s ability to manage his or her own grief and vengeance, it also coalesces to further put into focus who Chloe is, how she wound up in this position, and where she may be heading.
The crazy, high concept scenario Lipovsky and Stein cook up is further enhanced by an abundance of stunning visuals. The production design in the house is loaded with details and contributes big time to Chloe’s dueling life of warmth and terror. The lighting further enhances that, and then Lipovsky and Stein’s decision to shoot handheld and largely capture the story from Chloe’s perspective firmly puts the viewer in her shoes for much of the ride.
There’s two things that keep Freaks from being a complete home run – the violence and occasional believability issues. It’s a very tense life or death situation, but one can’t help to judge certain characters for quickly, and sometimes easily, taking the lives of the innocent or those whose transgressions don’t call for a death sentence. But, Lipovsky and Stein do manage to keep it all together well enough because while Freaks boasts one wild high concept, at its core it’s about family and thanks to the especially strong performances, it’s impossible not to root for certain characters to do whatever it takes to keep their loved ones alive.
As for those believability concerns, Freaks is out of this world in a sense. If you’re going to paint a picture where such things are possible, it sparks an intense amount of plot scrutiny – probably more intense than any grounded, “real world” story. Plus, with the whole mystery component of the film, you’re essentially encouraged to overanalyze every single detail early on. Lipovsky and Stein do lay a very strong foundation and successfully consume your attention from start to finish, but there were a small handful of moments when I caught myself thinking, “That’s a bit of a leap.” But, I also suspect Freaks is one of those experiences that’ll benefit from the discovery of missed details during subsequent viewings.
Overall it’s a dark, thrilling sci-fi ride with a very effective dramatic backbone. Hirsch, Dern, Amanda Crew and Grace Park are all excellent, but Freaks could and should be a game-changer for Kolker, Lipovsky and Stein. Kolker delivers some truly unforgettable work, and the level of detail and emotion Lipovsky and Stein achieve suggests that this isn’t a pair to merely lean on a clever concept. They strive to make it mean something and in the case of Freaks, they’ve succeeded.