Directors: Zach Lipovsky, Adam B. Stein
Notable Cast: Lexy Kolker, Emile Hirsch, Bruce Dern, Amanda Crew, Grace Park, Ava Telek, Michelle Harrison, Matty Finochio
The mystery box film has been something I’ve always enjoyed. Even when M. Night Shyamalan essentially claimed the entire genre as his own for a while, I’ve always appreciated a film that toys with its audience on what it’s doing or where it’s going. With the way that modern marketing has gone though, these are a style choice that’s a gimmick more than anything else. Thinking back to how JJ Abrams has maneuvered the Cloverfield franchise or his own Super 8, the way that the film industry makes the questions such a punchline can ultimately undercut the experience of the film. Audiences are immediately looking for the twist. This is what makes Freaks relatively special. Even the trailer that Well Go USA released gave us just enough about the basics of the film, but the final product plays with the details throughout so that it takes two acts before the audience even starts to put things together. It’s an incredible and powerful experience of cinema. The film ultimately ends up going into some familiar territory, but the manner that it gets there is riveting and incredibly well executed. For a mystery box film, it’s a wallop.
Freaks does a remarkably smart thing with its premise. It starts off small, focusing on character building and the key relationship between the 7-year-old daughter and her father first, and then starts to layer it on as it goes. Immediately it’s obvious how clever this is for the film. It keeps the details minimal and essentially stays in one location for the majority of the first act. It starts the world-building with dialogue between the two characters and very quickly develops the foundational relationship that this film needs to work. This film could have easily opened with a scroll to set up the world, but that's cheap and easy. This film instead opts for the audience to see the world through its characters. It helps that both the key stars of this portion, Emile Hirsch and Lexy Kolker who delivers an astounding performance, have palpable chemistry and both deliver the heat string tugs needed to carry the emotional weight.
From there, Freaks begins to layer in the science fiction and other genre elements needed to tell its story. Being that the film is a mystery box, I will refrain from doing a lot of analysis of the latter parts. To do so would ruin the impressive experience of going along with the characters through their trials and tribulations. The audience discovers the story along with the young protagonist who begins to learn of her world and the dangers around her. As new characters are added, which is relatively few compared to the world-building that starts to happen, they are fleshed out to add to the narrative. It toys with the audience about how or what might possibly be the villains of the film and even as all is revealed by the third act, nothing is as black and white as it might have been.
The core themes of love, family, and finding your purpose in a world that’s fully unstable are maximized by the genre elements. The main dramatic heft is delivered by its familial drama, but Freaks does an admirable job at using science fiction, a bit of horror, and some surprisingly effective action in the third act to support those themes and deliver on the character and narrative beats. Directors Zach Lipovsky and Adam B. Stein, who serve as the writers and producers on the film too, ably navigate the genre-hopping in a very smart way. By the time the film reveals the full plot in the third act and what kind of movie it really is, it becomes so obvious that the way they handled it is the best and most effective way to do so.
Freaks might be one of the best question marks that has received a theatrical release this year. The manner that it sets up its concepts and unravels its narrative and plot is just a brilliant way to handle the material with its budget. It creates an intimacy and heart to its science fiction, horror, and action elements that ground it all and it allows audiences to digest what it’s feeding them. The performances are shockingly fantastic, the visual and special effects are impressive for the small scale, and the direction assuredly balances everything. Freaks may not be wholly original, but the way that it positions itself makes it feel like a breath of fresh air in the cinema landscape.
Written By Matt Reifschneider