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Freak Show

Shout Factory // Unrated // June 5, 2018
List Price: $12.96 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted October 30, 2018 | E-mail the Author
Given the choice between his mother (Bette Midler) and his father (Larry Pine), Billy Bloom (Alex Lawther) has always chosen his mother (aka "Muv"). Billy is a queer, gender-nonconforming teen who loves to put on makeup and dress fabulously, something Muv has encouraged but Dad seems to frown on. Unsurprisingly, then, Billy is very unhappy to find himself abandoned by Muv for a semester, forced to live on his father's expansive mansion property and attend a conservative school in a red state. Almost immediately, he finds himself on the bad side of Lynette (Abigail Breslin), a Christian teen queen and social butterfly, and has nobody to talk to except his family's maid, Florence (Celia Weston), and the one nice classmate (AnnaSophia Robb) whose name he accidentally missed. Meanwhile, he pines for star football player Mark "Flip" Kelly (Ian Nelson), who seems kind enough.

Freak Show is a frustrating movie, one that gets in the way of and muddles its own triumphs. The movie was adapted from a book by James St. James, by screenwriters Patrick J. Clifton and Beth Rigazio, and it'd be easy to venture a guess that the film's struggles stem, at least in part, from a desire to preserve the "voice" of the book in a way that a movie is not designed to accommodate. Some of the other blame must also be laid at the feet of actor-turned-producer-turned-director Trudie Styler, who mostly acquits herself but struggles at key moments when it comes to properly modulating the film's tone, which runs the gamut from brutal drama to exaggerated comedy in a way that undermines both.

The biggest flaw with the film is introduced from the very beginning: voice-over narration. While a judicious application of voice-over might've worked, the additional layer of Lawther's performance ends up harming the primary one, because of the small but crucial difference between Billy being himself, in the world of the story (which Lawther does fine) and Billy monologuing directly to the audience (which comes off like the filmmakers being a bit too in love with Lawther's performance). The Billy of the voice-over narration is always "on," exists in a place place emotionally from after the story is over, and occasionally even wryly comments on what's on screen. As a result, the film often feels as if it's not taking its own story seriously, and it flattens the film's dramatic highs and lows to hear Billy's philosophical commentary on his own discrimination rather than letting the audience actually sit in any of the moments that Styler is creating.

It doesn't help that the film doesn't really have a solid central focus. It juggles three plotlines simultaneously: the relationship between Billy and his parents (which has an obvious but emotionally compelling outcome that hardly gets screen time), the relationship between Billy and Flip (which seems equally obvious, and gets the proper amount of attention, but lacks a strong resolution), and Billy's struggle to be accepted at school (which is underdeveloped, leaving the other students feeling like convenient caricatures that behave mostly based on the whims of the plot). The box copy on the Blu-ray provided for review makes it sound like the film centers on Billy challenging Lynette for the title of homecoming queen, which does serve as the film's climax, but is also introduced well over halfway into the movie. Things like this final showdown, or Billy ending up in a coma when a gang attacks him at school, or the existence of a secret subcommunity of queer students all feel half-baked, details that might make up an entire other movie but are just functional plot beats here.

All of this probably sounds harsh, and it's fair to say that Styler and the rest of her crew have their hearts in the right place. Yet, it's hard to know what to make of a movie that includes a straight-faced (albeit artistically softened) depiction of a hate crime, but also a villain like Lysette who is intentionally exaggerated, sparring with Laverne Cox's news reporter for the sake of laughs. When the film really gives its characters a rare chance to breathe, such as the quiet conversations between Billy and Flip, it's clear that there's a good movie here, but for a film that is all about personal confidence, it feels like the filmmakers didn't have the conviction to let the movie speak for itself.

The Blu-ray
Freak Show takes the film's original poster (an image of the back of Lawther's head, sitting in front of the stage mirror getting ready to apply makeup, as well as little bonus photos of Breslin, Robb, Cox, and Midler) and condenses it so it will fit the dimension of a Blu-ray box. They also changed the title font, for whatever reason. The one-disc release comes in a boxy new Blu-ray case with no insert, and there is a matte cardboard slipcover with the same art on it.

The Video and Audio
Presented in 2.39:1 1080p AVC and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, Freak Show looks and sounds fine on Blu-ray. The film has a natural look, albeit one peppered with the vivid and vivacious colors of Billy's various makeup and outfit ensembles. Certain sequences are treated to be a little softer, to give them the appearance of memory, but the affectations on screen all appear to be intentional. There are occasional crowd sequences that sound authentic and a couple of montages set to music, but this is a pretty straightforward, dialogue-driven drama without much aural spectacle to give the surround channels a workout. A DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track is also included, as well as English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing.

The Extras
None. Trailers for Queen of the Desert, Wakefield, and The Tribes of Palos Verdes play before the main menu. An original theatrical trailer for Freak Show is also included.

Freak Show is a disappointing misfire, with spots of potential peeking out from underneath a bunch of artistic and dramatic clutter. At most, rent it.

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