As with a lot of its indie, queer film cousins, the strength of a movie like Freak Show lies in its heart. Based on the young adult novel of the same name by former club kid and current World of Wonder bon vivant James St. James, it’s an earnest story that makes up for its lack of surprises with a star-studded cast and an excellent performance from The Imitation Game’s Alex Lawther.
Freak Show is built around a classic teenage fish-out-of-water plot, presented almost as a series of vignettes that range from triumphant to troubling. Flamboyant boy in a new, conservative school? Check. Cliché ridden cheerleader rival? Check. Straight boy crush? Check. Linsday Lohan and Chloë Sevigny name drops? Check. Heart warming finale? Check.
And yet, there’s a lot to love about producer/director Trudie Styler’s take on the story – especially the cast, from Bette Midler as the messy Muv, to Abigail Breslin as the cheerleading arch-conservative arch-nemesis, to the loving cameo by Laverne Cox as a TV news reporter. And Lawther shines, bringing sense of sensitivity and depth to the film’s sassy and flamboyant main character, Billy Bloom.
While the story may not be surprising, it’s pro-inclusion/anti-bullying message couldn’t be more timely in an era where discrimination and violence towards those who dare to eschew the heteronormative gender binary for their own path is back in vogue. And let’s be clear, it is a story meant for young adults, which helps explain away some of it’s predictability and lack of finesse.
The film looks amazing, of course – buoyed by gorgeous costuming from Oscar winner Colleen Atwood and stylish cinematography from Dante Spinotti – and includes songs from queer artists such as Eliot Sumner, Boy George and local favorite Perfume Genius. That, combined with some fun cameos and a strong leading actor, could be just what will help bring the film’s important message to young audiences who may need to hear it.