Directing duo Zach Lipovsky and Adam B Stein have clearly taken inspiration from such films as Room and 10 Cloverfield Lane to craft a stunning, genre-bending, psychological sci-fi thriller about a young girl who discovers a new world beyond her front door. The film unravels inside of a ramshackle house where a bright seven-year-old named Chloë (Lexy Kolker) is held ‘prisoner’ by her overly protective and paranoid father Henry (Emile Hirsch). The house is boarded shut with several padded locks on the front door, and the windows are covered with thick blankets and newspaper clippings — enough to keep the sunshine out. Every exchange between the father and daughter is meant to pique our curiosity about the mystery of the world outside that bolted door; having trained Chloë to assume a new identity, Henry runs her through routine security drills, and repeatedly warns his daughter of the dangers of the outside world, as well as the people threatening to kill them. Everything we see, we see from Chloë’s perspective — which isn’t much, since the young girl has never left the premises.
Henry’s increasingly paranoid and arguably insane attempts to keep Chloë inside are the stuff of nightmares. The initial setup feels particularly alarming, because it focuses solely on the unhealthy relationship between the father and daughter, leaving us fearful for her safety. Tired of being locked up, Chloë decides she wants to go in search of the ice cream truck that often parks outside her home. When she eventually builds up the courage to defy her father and escape, she crosses paths with Mr. Snowcone (Bruce Dern), an ice cream vendor with a keen interest in the girl. He claims to know the truth about Chloë’s dad, and tries to convince her to run away with him. Regardless if the man is telling the truth or not, it doesn’t take long before it becomes apparent that things aren’t quite what they seem. By now, it is clear that Freaks is a thriller designed to keep your stomach in knots, your fingers clenched, and your heart racing. The question, however, is whether Chloë can trust her dad, or is the mysterious ice cream vendor the real threat?
Freaks opens with a simple scenario, but the hook here (and what keeps us watching) is that we never really know anything more than Chloë does. As mentioned above, Freaks is presented in her point of view, and thus Chloë acts as our eyes and ears — which doesn’t help matters, since she herself is too young to make sense of what is going on. Lipovsky and Stein have great fun teasing audiences, patiently revealing scraps of information such as the fleeting glimpses of TV news broadcasts playing in the background about drone strikes in Seattle, or the destruction of Dallas, Texas. Why does her dad sometimes bleed from his eyes? Who is Mr. Snowcone, and what does he want with her? There are so many questions to be asked, including who is the ghostly woman who sometimes appears in the attic (Amanda Crew), and what is her connection to Chloë?
What makes Freaks such a great mystery is that the writer-directors aren’t out to play coy with the audience. Instead, they patiently let us in on its secrets as the mysteries are slowly unraveled, in a series of increasingly intense and thrilling sequences. It really is impressive how much mileage they get out of simply not revealing too much too early. Needless to say, the less you know about Freaks going in, the better. The fun here has everything to do with how it continues to unfold into a series of surprises designed to keep viewers guessing right up to the final reel.
The less you know about Freaks going in, the better.
Freaks is also a movie that is shockingly well-made given its modest budget. It is directed by first-time feature helmers, and at times it feels like a calling card, as though the filmmakers are out to prove they can rival many big-budget blockbusters. Judging by their results, I certainly think they are more than capable of directing something on a large-scale, and I can’t wait to see what they do next. Using less than a handful of locations, a small cast, and some duly applied special effects, the filmmakers manage to create some explosive action scenes despite the film’s obvious technical limitations. In particular, the filmmakers use sound design to maximum effect when heightening the suspense, and with Timothy Wynn’s score helping them, they manage to pull off some very effective jump scares. Meanwhile, cinematographer Stirling Bancroft shoots the film completely from Chloe’s perspective, which in the first act feels incredibly claustrophobic and dreamlike — and in the third act, makes the world of Freaks seem too big for our young protagonist.
What is it really about?
*** Note: The following paragraph can be considered a spoiler. ***
Freaks is more than just a paranoia thriller. There’s a dash of X-Men and a large dose of Tim Kring’s Heroes. The challenge here involves transitioning an overly cryptic first act into an action-packed plot involving super-powered outcasts who are hunted by the military and forced to hide from the rest of humanity. Yes, Freaks is another superhero origin story, but judging by the plot synopsis, the trailer, the poster, or any of the other form of marketing, you would be forgiven for not knowing these details. By the time those superheroic moments come, we are invested in the characters, and no matter how familiar its tropes are, Freaks never ceases to be thoroughly engaging. It helps that Zach Lipovsky and Adam B Stein show a good understanding of how children think and behave, keeping our young heroine believable while gradually filling in the blanks as to what’s happening in the world around her.
Freaks is a superhero movie that is grounded in reality. Yes, characters can control minds, freeze time, teleport, turn invisible, and fly, but their abilities are mainly kept in the background, allowing the family drama to take center stage. The story unfolds in ways that make its characters seem much more ‘human’ despite their special abilities. And like X-Men or Heroes, Freaks is upfront about its thematic focus on diversity, discrimination, and persecution. It taps into current paranoia about immigrants, people of color, and various minorities (under the guise of the mutant ‘abnormals’ or ‘freaks’) who have become victims and targets across the United States. It certainly isn’t overtly political, but the metaphor is there nonetheless.
Beyond the sci-fi and horror, Freaks is really a movie about coming of age. Lexy Kolker (best known as young Robin in Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.) is a natural performer, easily holding her own against the older actors. Her performance couldn’t be any more authentic, and despite being surrounded by an experienced cast, she pretty much carries the weight of the film on her tiny shoulders.
Freaks is a superb thriller that breathes new life into the genre and makes the most of its confined setting, modest budget, and an outstanding cast. The first half is rewardingly claustrophobic, keeping its focus tight on the characters and keeping secrets locked down, all while teasing at whatever disasters may loom outside. The second half is touching, action-packed, and spectacular. Sometimes messy but mostly effective, Freaks gives most Marvel movies a run for their money.
– Ricky D
Editor’s Note: This review was originally published on July 29, 2019, as part of our coverage of the Fantasia Film Festival.