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Freaks (2019)
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by Jay Seaver

"Best seen cold (what movie isn't?), but still a nifty sci-fi thriller."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2019 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: As much as I do like previews even beyond the way that they give one a heads-up that certain movies even exist, there's a real delight to be found in going into certain movies cold. The one for "Freaks", for instance, probably needs to show as much as it does in order to draw its potential audience in, especially in an environment when similar-sounding but much larger things have huge studios behind them to suck up all of the oxygen in the room, but I'm glad I didn't see it until after I saw the movie. I kind of figured it eventually had to go a certain way, but it was thrilling to never be sure which way the movie would jump.

It centers on Chloe (Lexy Kolker), eight years old and living with her father (Emile Hirsch) in what are clearly not the best conditions - squatting in a run-down house, windows covered in newspaper, eating canned goods and being vigilant about outsiders. He drills her on a cover story and doesn't let her watch TV, but she's a clever and curious girl, and has started sneaking out during the rare hours when he lets himself sleep. That's how she meets "Mr. Snowcone" (Bruce Dern), who seems to have positioned his ice-cream truck on this quiet corner just to find her.

The nifty trick here is that filmmakers Zach Lipovsky & Adam B. Stein don't create an idyllic or "normal" setting that they can later reveal as hiding something darker, but instead decide to set off alarm bells from the very start, and then make the audience a little more nervous or queasy with every new piece of information: None of this seems healthy and even once new information starts coming out, there's still a lot of question as to whether it's necessarily unhealthy or compounded bad decisions. They create more uncertainty by telling the story from the point of view of an eight-year-old girl, keeping details out of sight and maybe part of an active imagination. Eventually, it's all out, and audiences will have seen a fair amount of what the filmmakers do before, but the details can still be surprising, and it's built to make knowing who to trust difficult all the way through. It's a layer cake of not being quite sure how to feel next.

It's a heck of a lot to drop on such a young actress, but Lexy Kolker is great; she captures the powerful but complicated emotions that a child that age feels, most notably the sense of betrayal that comes from finding out that a patent has been lying, even though she shows a certain blankness when the shoe is on the other foot and she's hiding from her father. It's impressively unnerving to watch her come into her own with a frequently warped perspective, a damaged kid whose reactions the viewers nevertheless understand. Most of the people she interacts with are trying to keep things quiet, which makes the introduction of Bruce Dern's outright creepy ice cream man a dash of skin-crawling flavor, his angry menace drawing good work out of Emile Hirsch as well.

Eventually, the filmmakers commit to these characters living in a bigger, more dangerous world than just a reclusive man and his imaginative daughter, and the basic map of it is a bit less than inspiring - new and more pessimistically "realistic" spins on this concept have been on regular offer ever since Stan Lee & Jack Kirby created the most successful version in the 1960s - to the point where one is introduced to Grace Park's government agent and sighs from having seen her a lot. The getting there has at least been a different, more interesting route, and the filmmakers give themselves just the right amount of room to play where they don't seem constrained by not having a massive budget. The last act is full of nifty, well-executed sci-fi action that, while it does drift a bit from where the film started, mostly transforms the film's nervous paranoia rather than leaving it behind.

Hopefully I haven't given up too much of the game here; it's sometimes hard to say why you like a movie (and what shortcomings work against that somewhat) without making it hard for the person you're addressing to like it the same way. I suspect that "Freaks" is best seen cold, although it's nicely enough assembled to work even if viewers know what they're getting into. This particular take is usually a side-story in a larger universe, but works well taking center stage here.

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originally posted: 09/12/19 02:45:22
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

1/23/20 Langano She's super freaky! 2 stars
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