FANTASIA FESTIVAL – ‘Freaks’ Unravels a Surprisingly Socially Conscious Mystery at the Heart of its Sci-Fi Plot

The struggle between living authentically and living safely is a plight that has been the reality for many minorities for decades. Whether its expressing your gender identity, sexuality, cultural heritage or speaking your mother tongue on foreign soil, the world does its best to suppress ‘the Other’ due to fear; a fear which is typically misguided and boils down to a lack of understanding. Often ostracised and forced to build their own safe spaces, ‘the Other’ will often resort to assimilating into the dominant culture for safety and the ability to navigate it with more ease.

For Emile Hirsch’s paranoid ‘Dad’, assimilation is the key to survival. We meet him in his ramshackle house with his seven-year-old daughter Chloe (Lexy Kolker), reciting a back and forth Q&A in which Chloe details a false identity: fake name, fake birthday, fake parents, fake interests. Its almost robotic, and Dad watches on with such a gripping intensity that its clear the words coming from her mouth mean life or death; “You need to lie to be normal”, he tells her.

But what does ‘normal’ mean? And what is so daringly different about this small family (other than their patchwork living conditions) that they fear for their lives? In this case normal is the suburban vision right across the street, a street – and entire world in fact, that Chloe isn’t allowed to go out and enjoy. She peeks through the letterbox to golden sunshine, picket fences and an ice cream truck that’s calling her name but can’t enjoy any of it because she’s not ‘normal’.

There’s something different about Chloe, she imagines a ghost woman in her room that she talks to and can often have an uncontrollable temper. Dad’s eyes often bleed and one day, Chloe’s might bleed too. Hirsch navigates his role with such nervousness it borders on psychotic, this man will do anything to protect his daughter from a world that will supposedly bring her to a violent death. With such mystery-loaded dialogue for the audience to untangle from the outset this scenario might initially easily be forgiven as being the makings of a psychological thriller starring Hirsch as a controlling cult leader father. But take one look at the poster, and it could be easily read as a zombie horror film too. Filmmakers Zach Lipovsky and Adam B. Stein do well to mess with genre conventions for an intriguing set-up that unravels at a tantalising pace full of more questions than answers.

Answers start to take shape after Chloe escapes the house, running to the ice cream man ‘Mr Snowcone’ (a terrifyingly unreadable Bruce Dern) who knows more about this little girl and her capabilities than one might suspect. We experience these revelations at the same pace as Chloe, (which is quite overwhelming for a seven-year-old) piecing together the puzzle from TV footage remembering the anniversary of a world-altering disaster, an FBI team doing neighbourhood raids and the wisdom of Mr Snowcone.

Its certainly a film best to entertain on as little premise as possible due to its slow unfurling state, but its all-out action sci-fi finale will be easily suited to fans of Stranger Things and X-Men. While comparisons to the X-Men may be rife, Freaks possesses more nuance and contemporary social awareness than most. People like Chloe are branded ‘Abnormals’ or ‘Freaks’ and considered illegal. Government officials are divided on rounding them up as hostages for termination or relocating them to live safely… sound familiar? Of course, a sci-fi film can’t hold up in comparison to the lived experiences of immigrants (illegal or not) but it can hold up a mirror to our own attitudes through this fictional world, and perhaps evoke understanding or compassion for real-world situations through its storytelling.

This story of survival and parenthood would be engaging enough without the flashy visual effects come the films finale which is a testament to the terrific pairing of Hirsch and Kolker. Chloe rides the waves of compliance, confusion, anger and determination in a succession of moments that in fact define her humanity, not the ‘abnormality’ the world wants to oppress her with. Lipovsky and Stein infuse their sci-fi with a well-meaning socially conscious message that suffers from its need to appeal to current audience interests in its final act, but nonetheless delivers a thrilling mystery to satisfy an appetite for something a little surprising.

by Chloe Leeson

Chloe Leeson is the founder of SQ. She hails from the north of England (the proper north that people think is actually Scotland but isn’t). Her life source is Harmony Korine’s 90s Letterman interviews and Ezra Miller’s jawline. She is a costume designer for hire who spends far too much time watching bad horror movies. Her favourite films are Into The WildLords of Dogtown, Stand by Me and Pan’s Labyrinth. She rants about cinema screenings @kawaiigoff and logs them on letterboxd here

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