The boy who would be Homecoming Queen
“You again, what am I going to do with you?” Our protagonist examines their in the mirror, pondering their first day at school. It is a sentiment that most of us have shared in our lives, as we seek to find out who we are, or try to hide it from our peers and play pretend to be someone else, something that doesn’t stand out or reflect who we are. It is refreshing then that just after they utter these words we have a montage of flamboyant looks ranging from Geisha to Banana to Marilyn Monroe to Boy George.
This is Freak Show, it focusses on Billy Bloom (Alex Lawther) a young “gender obliviator”, to use his own words, who has transferred to a new conservative, bible belt school from Connecticut. There, due to his glamorous outfits and outlandish behaviour he ends up the centre of attention and not in a good way. Bullied and beaten into a coma, Billy is an outcast due to his sexuality. He does make a couple of friends, the shy Blah Blah Blah (AnnaSophia Robb) – so called because Billy didn’t quite her name – and the star quarterback Flip Kelly (Ian Nelson). Billy fights with himself and with fellow students for the freedom to be who he wishes to be. At the same time Billy is having trouble at home, having been forcibly moved from the care of his beloved mother Muv (Bette Midler), to his more normative and extravagantly wealthy father only to find out his childhood wasn’t quite how he remembered.
Freak Show‘s plot, at least for the first half, feels somewhat disjointed. There seems to be several films in there all vying for attention and the film quickly cuts between them, leaving barely any time to absorb what is going on. We have Billy’s high school experience with Flip trying to get Billy to stand out less after having been kicked into oblivion. At the same time we have Billy’s relationship with his father and both are given equal amounts of screen time, but no space between them to breath and instead the film shifts gears so quickly that you almost hear the clutch whirring. The episodic nature of the film also damages the ability of the film to form characters, as Billy, Flip, Bla Bla Bla (she does get a name I promise) and Lynette (Abigail Breslin) all seem to stay the same throughout the film.
The story finally focusses around the third act when Billy Bloom decides to run for homecoming queen. It is here we get to grips with the film’s primary purpose and mission statement. Billy has a goal to crush the head of the cheerleading squad, ultra-Christian and MAGA conservative rival Lynette. All the other elements of the story similarly tie together to form a cohesive narrative, it would have been great if this element had been added earlier so it linked everything else together as well, as it could have probably helped with the rocky first half. However, it’s the story which is the main problem and all other elements are used, it seems, to try and cover the lost ground of formless writing.
The film is based on the 2007 Young Adult novel of the same name by celebutant and ex-club kid James St James. If the name rings a bell, it’s because he was played by Seth Green in 2003’s Party Monster (adapted from his own book Disco Bloodbath). The screenwriters here, Patrick J. Clifton and Beth Rigazio, seem to take his very relatable message about acceptance and the struggles of a LGBTQ+ youth during perhaps one of the most awful periods in anyone’s lives, high-school, and applies it to the wider state of America, with references to the incompetent chump in the white house, prominent LGBTQ+ celebrities like Laverne Cox, of Orange is the New Black, who makes a cameo as news reporter, Felicia Watts. Clifton and Rigazio put a Mean Girls/Clueless spin on things with an extravagant building and tribalistic cliques.
Alex Lawther has made a name for himself playing the more ‘out there’ parts, most notably the infamous Kenny in Black Mirror’s most devastating episode “Shut Up and Dance”, James from Channel 4’s mini-series The End of the F***ing World and Simon Rifkind from 2018’s sleeper supernatural horror film Ghost Stories. In Freak Show as Billy Bloom, it feels like Lawther is let loose to play to his heart’s content. Whether Lawther had any say in what Billy wore we don’t know, but the range of clothes he wears is out of this world, and it looks like he is having a blast. He is also the main reason that the slightly clichéd dialogue is able to hit as hard as it does, adding a level of vulnerability and emotion to scenes that are not perhaps handled as carefully as director Trudie Styler intended. It is he, and the other members of the illustrious cast such as Midler, Breslin, and Cox, that drag the fluff and wool into something much more entertaining.
Freak Show is a hyperactive, glamorous, disjointed, distracted, fabulous and uplifting film. It is not perfect at all, with a predictable story surrounding a person attaining acceptance for who they are by their father and peers. But that is important, it is essential for these kinds of films to have happy endings and empowering messages. This is a feel-good self-affirming film for those kids who are like Billy, those that are hated and bullied for being that bit different, whether that be sexually, racially or due to their gender, and for all those who aren’t. It is a film about belonging, but not forcing yourself to change, finding your own corner of the world and owning it, who you are and accepting you for you. It may have issues with its pacing and an overt message, but when it looks this good who can blame it.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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