Freaks (2018)

Freaks first published by SciFiNow

Zach Lipovsky and Adam B. Stein’s film opens to the distorted strains of ice cream truck music, as seven-year-old Chloe (Lexy Kolker) peeks out at Mr Snowcone’s blue-and-pink vehicle parked in the suburban street below. Ice cream is such a simple, tantalising pleasure, yet Chloe’s dad Henry (Emile Hirsch) pulls Chloe back from the window in alarm. “Someone could have seen you,” he remonstrates. “You’ve got to be a good hider, otherwise the bad guys will find you.” Henry obviously loves Chloe very much, but, paranoid, rarely sleeping (“I can only protect you when I’m awake”) and wide-eyed with manic panic, he has kept her locked up with him in this house for years. Surrounded by piles of cash that they save for emergencies and use for play, Henry coaches Chloe both in relaxation techniques and in cover stories in case she should ever have to venture outside to the neighbours’ house. “You need to lie to be normal,” he tells her – and his own freakishness appears to be rubbing off on Chloe as, in these claustrophobic conditions, she starts regularly seeing the ghost of her late mother Mary (Amanda Crew) in the bedroom closet.

Films like Bad Boy Bubby (1984), Dogtooth (2010), Miss Violence (2013), Room (2015), Brigsby Bear (2017) and Wildling (2018) have inured viewers to the type of plot in which children are perversely reared by parents or parental figures in hermetic milieux, and Freaks certainly seems, at least at first, to conform to this template, presenting us with a little girl whose view of life beyond the door has been skewed by a disturbed, controlling father. Yet as Chloe is drawn out of her confinement by the sinisterly avuncular Mr Snowcone (Bruce Dern), the film turns this kind of narrative inside out, showing both a family, and a world, that is different from our normative expectations. Ultimately what emerges is another, equally familiar plot type – one which has more typically (as here) been used to explore issues of otherness, isolation and assimilation. The beauty of Freaks is the way that it defamiliarises the tropes of both these somewhat stale subgenres, making them seem freakishly new again.

At the centre of Freaks is Chloe’s quest for identity, empowerment and love in a hostile environment that she barely understands – and to get what she wants she just needs a little Push. It is a cleverly constructed, thrilling and often super-surreal coming-of-age story that gets right into your head.

Strap: Zach Lipovsky and Adam B. Stein’s genre-leaping coming-of-ager concerns a very unusual family’s efforts to survive in a hostile world.

© Anton Bitel