1989’s Batman blazed onto the silver screens compliments of Warner Bros. and Tim Burton, and – in the wake of its success – a reasonable number of other comic book properties gave it the sailor’s try to enjoy the same commercial and critical success. While there were a few winners, methinks that there were more losers; but it wasn’t until Marvel Studios’ Iron Man – with the box office clout of critical favorite Robert Downey Jr. in the lead as Tony Stark – that Hollywood truly sunk its teeth into more substantive adaptations. And once Walt Disney joined forces with Marvel – bringing along their ability to put serious capital behind such investments – the sky was truly the limit. Caped wonders were everywhere – indeed, many of which were part of the larger, burgeoning Marvel mythology with motion picture after motion picture paving the way for even more – and suddenly every studio (and their mother’s uncle) joined the big business of modern era crusaders.
Perhaps it’s precisely owed to the proliferation of such big budget features that the smaller, quieter, spandex-free entries typically failed to attract the attention of ticket buyers. After all, not every fictional character has the tax returns of Stark and Bruce Wayne, so the little guys and gals who curiously stumble upon powers not granted mortal men (and women) fight the uphill battle of finding a single silver screen for display when Captain Marvel has reserved half the multiplex’s. For example, 2012’s Chronicle did solid business for a low-budget superhero thriller using the found-footage format to tell the story of three teens who develop superhuman powers they eventually turn on one another. 2018’s Fast Color stays much more firmly grounded in the traditional indie focus (the young woman finding her way in the world) while balancing the character’s need to fully understand what she can accomplish with her powers.
This brings me to 2018’s Freaks … which, in short, might just be one of the most bizarrely original ‘superhero’ movies I’ve ever seen.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of person who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From IMDB.com: “A bold girl discovers a bizarre, threatening, and mysterious new world beyond her front door after she escapes her father's protective and paranoid control.”
It doesn’t take long for this unlikely couple to draw the attention of a passing police officer. Fearing that the young girl has either been abducted or might be one of the ‘infected’ hinted at but never quite explained, he attempts to intervene; eventually, his will succumbs to Chloe’s psychic demands, and he bewilderingly walks away without a look back.
It’s this perfectly executed uncertainty that makes Freaks such a delight to watch. Hints are dropped so consistently and preternaturally that this world is not what it seems that the audience has no choice but to wait it out, hoping for some character to eventually rise up, break the Fourth Wall, and explain just what is up with everyone. Has dad gone mad? Is this child truly his own? Could ice cream be the bridge to some fanciful tomorrow? And what was happened to dear old mom? None of these characters – the father, the child, and Mr. Snowcone – are what they appear to be at the outset, and only patience for what Lipvosky and Stern are strategically revealing is rewarded. The pieces are deliberately placed in such a way as so build suspense around their shared journey – are they trapped by some greater, outside foe or could all of this be some massive cinematic hallucination fueled by a deranged few?
Once the audience realizes that not only dad’s fevered imagination holds a nefarious secret but also Mr. Snowcone and Chloe do as well does the wall come down – figuratively and literally. Layer by layer, Freaks tugs on each dramatic reveal, displaying a world that might have far more mutants than just a fateful few showcased here. This is a place where not even the neighbors can be trusted as paranoia against those different from us has paved the way for a Gestapo-like government to lethally enforce public will; each of us in only a drone strike away from destruction … unless we possess the ability to do something about it.
Hirsch and Dern turn in exceptional performances as men haunted by their recent past with motivations to set about change no matter the cost to their personal and supernatural safety. (Supernatural safety? It’ll make much more sense when you watch the film.) Amanda Crew turns in fabulous work, balancing a woman’s maternal instinct against what she thinks might be a nervous breakdown. Young Lexy Kolker – at the ripe young age of just under ten years old – shoulders much of the narrative burden here; and she delivers on every promise. Her Chloe is curious and equally aghast at her circumstances, and the child actor turns in an seasoned performance here as a young girl who just wants a normal life, powers be damned.
Judging by the flick’s box office, essentially few people besides the critics and festival crowds saw this thing, and that’s a damn, damn, damn shame. Seek it out. Stream it. Pick up the DVD. Give it a try. You may not enjoy all of it (such is the nature of entertainment), but I dare you to challenge its unique voice and originality. Who knows? You might just believe a man can fly. Or a woman.