Review by Jacquelin Hipes
Bullies are omnivorous creatures. Not even kids who expend so much time and energy on blending in are exempt from their attention. They have a sinister intuition when it comes to pinpointing a victims deepest insecurities and a deadly accuracy in their attacks. And what about the classmates who don’t want to blend in? Who relish and amplify what makes them unique, daring the small-minded to frame their features as flaws? Unfortunately, that confidence can make them the most tempting targets of all.
Billy Bloom (Alex Lawther) has no shortage of confidence. From the first time he tried on her slingback pumps, Billy’s mother (Bette Midler) encouraged him to embrace what made him happy no matter what others thought. He loses that support system, though, when she heads to rehab and Billy goes to live with his wealthy, emotionally estranged father (Larry Pine) in Florida. From the first day at his new school, Billy’s flamboyant wardrobe, and accompanying attitude, earn scorn from his peers. The jocks and a gaggle of ultra-conservative Christians led by Lynette (Abigail Breslin) particularly relish the abuse. Only two students bother reaching out in friendship: a talkative girl (AnnaSophia Robb) whose name Billy never catches, and the star of last year’s football team, Flip (Ian Nelson).
Not even Flip’s friendship spares him from persecution; when Billy refuses to tone down his eccentricities to better fit in, he suffers from a vicious prank that leaves him hospitalized. Not one to back down, when he returns to school and learns that Lynette intends to run uncontested for homecoming queen, Billy announces his own candidacy in a pointed rebuke of his schoolmates’ treatment.
Based on the young adult novel by James St. James, Freak Show deserves praise for adapting the story of a boy many adolescents can relate to, but rarely get to see onscreen. Billy never claims a specific gender identity or sexuality; he tells a reporter he’s a “gender obscurist” before settling on the more generic “freak”. Neither of those labels really matter. What’s most important is that Billy’s differences are no excuse for bullying, and rather than letting himself be changed or rescued by “normal” friends, he makes that point on his own terms. Lawther does a great job as Billy, drawing out the vulnerability beneath his extravagant costumes. Equally impressive is Nelson as the football star who secretly wants to pursue art instead.
The rest of the film, unfortunately, is much less inspiring. Breslin and her flock of flunkies are poorly sketched caricatures of moralizing villains. When Lynette drops the phrases “gay agenda” and “make America great again” in an interview it isn’t scary, just vapid. The entire movie embraces the lead’s sense of theatricality, yet in doing so creates an environment that barely resembles the reality of high school life by the end. LGBTQ teens are underrepresented enough in the media already; it doesn’t help that when they are given the spotlight, it’s riddled with cliché and hyperbole.
Still, one must hope that the release of Freak Show is an indication of expanded diversity in the stories Hollywood tells. Alex Lawther’s performance gives the freak in everyone a hero to root for, and his experiences remind us of the importance of acceptance at any age.