‘Freak Show’ movie review: If John Hughes were alive today …
Updated Jan 30, 9:41 AM; Posted Jan 30, 9:41 AM
Ask anyone who was a teenager in the 1980s, and they’ll tell you that if one filmmaker more than any other seemed to be speaking directly to them, it was John Hughes. The maker of such films as “The Breakfast Club,” “Sixteen Candles” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” — while perhaps not a technical master of the filmmaking arts — knew a whole lot about how to talk to kids.
His movies were often-silly comedies, but beneath the jokes they were grounded in reality and compassion, honestly capturing the angst of growing up (not to mention the absurdity of adulthood) without ever condescending to their pimply faced target audiences.
Hughes died in 2009, but if he were alive today and still making movies, one has to think he would probably be making movies like “Freak Show.”
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An indie teen comedy, it’s a touch rough around the edges from a technical standpoint, and its characters are, for the most part, fairly one-dimensional. But director Trudie Styler’s film manages to zoom in on the trials and tribulations of the American teenage experience in a way that feels reminiscent of Hughes’ work.
Even the film’s setup sounds Hughesian: Thanks to a decision by his beloved but troubled mother (played in a small role by Bette Midler), a teenage misfit named Billy Bloom is forced to go to a new school in a small town where almost no one appreciates his off-the-charts level of fabulousness. “I’ve been hated before,” the vamp-prone Billy says in a voiceover, “but I’ve never been hated by everyone before.”
His mother, however, has a saying: When they kick you, you just kick higher. So, to teach his classmates a bit about tolerance, acceptance and the value of originality, he decides to run for homecoming queen.
Granted, you’ll probably be able to predict many of the film’s major plot points before they happen, but Styler’s film — while indulging in its share of teenage cliches — never feels stale. Part of that is the film’s message, which is very much a part of the current zeitgeist. Even more, though, is the lead performance of Alex Lawther, who is nothing short of a revelation in “Freak Show.”
If you recognize Lawther, it’s probably from “Goodbye Christopher Robin” (in which he played the older Christopher Robin), “The Imitation Game” (in which he played the young Alan Turing) or “Black Mirror” (in which he plays a blackmailed teen). After “Freak Show,” however, you won’t just recognize Lawther. You’ll remember his name.
He is that good, filling not just the role but every square inch of the movie screen as the film’s flamboyant, bedazzled and unapologetic teen queen. The best part is that Lawther, smartly, does it all without a trace of irony or meanness. We’re not meant to laugh at Billy. We’re meant to appreciate him and his daring sense of originality — and to pump our fist in solidarity for him when the time comes.
Simply, Lawther nails it. He’s also the best reason to go see “Freak Show.”
It might not be a John Hughes movie, but Styler makes it feel like it could be one — and Lawther makes Billy Bloom feel as if he’d be right at home alongside Ferris Bueller, Farmer Ted, Duckie Dale and other denizens of the Hughes universe.
3 stars, out of 5
Snapshot: A teen comedy about an unapologetically flamboyant boy who decides to teach his classmates a lesson in tolerance by running for homecoming queen.
What works: The young Alex Lawther is tremendous in the lead role, with a tour de force performance that announces him as a talent to watch.
What doesn’t: The story has its familiar elements, and its characters tend to be one-dimensional.
Cast: Lawther, Abigail Breslin, AnnaSophia Robb, Ian Nelson, Willa Fitzgerald, Bette Midler. Director: Trudie Styler. Rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour 31 minutes. Where: Opens Friday (Feb. 2) at the Chalmette Movies.