Freak Show Review
By Kyle Nolan
June 5, 2018
June is Pride Month, and to help celebrate, Shout! Factory and IFC Films have released the new teen dramedy Freak Show on Blu-ray & DVD. Billy Bloom (Alex Lawther, The End of the F***ing World, Howard’s End) isn’t like most other teenagers. He likes to glam things up, putting on wigs, dressing up in women’s clothes, and decking himself out in beads and feathers. When he was a child, Billy’s parents were constantly arguing, and eventually split up. The 7 years that followed were some of the happiest of Billy’s life. He spent all his time with his best friend, his Muv (Bette Midler). The two of them always had a grand time, dressing up and dancing. However, this came to a sudden end when his mother suddenly dropped him off at his father’s family estate while she headed off to some unknown destintion. Billy hardly knew anything about his “Daddy Downer” (Larry Pine, House of Cards), except that he didn’t approve of Billy’s lifestyle, and that Billy was not the son that he had always dreamed of having.
Billy doesn’t really make a good first impression at his new school—as he walks down the halls dressed like a 1980s Boy George, he is met with stares and constant pointing, and everyone seems to have his or her phone out filming the freak show. Billy becomes the target of ridicule, a constant barrage of spitballs, and even violence, but his father doesn’t really have any sympathy, telling Billy that “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down”. Billy wants to leave town—while he’s been hated at school before, it’s never been by everyone. However, Billy soon meets a girl in the library (AnnaSophia Robb, Mercy Street, The Carrie Diaries) who fills him in on all the school gossip, and the two quickly become friends. He also strikes up an unlikely friendship with star football player Flip Kelly (Ian Nelson, There’s… Johnny!)—it was love at first sight when Billy first cast his eyes on Flip, even though Billy knows the feelings are one-sided. Despite making a couple of friends, Billy continues to struggle to fit in, and decides that he is going to shake things up by running for prom queen, against ultra-conservative/religious mean girl Lynette (Abigail Breslin, Scream Queens).
I was first interested in checking out this movie when I saw that the lead was played by Alex Lawther. I had first seen him in the recent Netflix series The End of the F***ing World, and was really impressed with his work. Once again, Lawther completely commits himself to his role—this time an eccentric teenager who is happiest when he can just be free to be himself and dress and act the way he wants. Billy Bloom is an interesting character—sometimes I found him charming and interesting, while other times irritating and entitled. I found myself torn between being happy that he was being himself, but also wondering why he wouldn’t just tone down his attitude or way of dressing if it would make things easier for him at school. The film does explore this to some degree. When Billy is dressed in “normal” clothes, there’s definitely a spark that seems to be gone, but when he’s dressed up as say Zelda Fitzgerald while doing a book report in front of the class, he just comes to life. His attitude and way he dresses is a core part of him, and he doesn’t want to sacrifice that by pretending he’s something he’s not.
I quite enjoyed some of the relationships in the film, especially the one between Billy and Trip. At first it seems like these two come from completely different worlds, but they share a common background of their fathers wanting them to be people they aren’t. The friendship they have is completely platonic, but still loving and supportive. I also enjoyed the relationship underappreciated housekeeper Florence (Celia Weston) has with both Billy and his father. She’s always there to listen to problems and talk some sense into these men.
While the film does touch on some more serious topics such as bullying, hate speech and alcoholism, it does so at a very artificial level, and doesn’t get serious enough to really show the dangerous consequences of these. The film is in this middle area where it isn’t constantly laugh out loud funny (though it has its moments), or deadly serious. It tries to ride the line between the two, with varying degrees of success. The movie is basically broken into three distinct acts. In the first act, Billy is displaced from his fully-accepting household with his mother, and placed in a new, more conservative setting where he doesn’t fit in, and starts to face ridicule and verbal and physical abuse. In the second act, Billy opens up more and starts to experience moments of happiness and joy, but a couple of betrayals bring his world crashing down once again. And in the final act, Billy is reborn, finding and reclaiming a strength he didn’t know he had. Overall, Freak Show is an uplifting and sometimes funny story about just being one’s self without worrying what others think. It also features cameos from Laverne Cox as a reporter doing a story on the prom queen race, and John McEnroe as the school’s gym coach.
Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray release provides picture that is, for the most part, clean and detailed, though occasionally some colors look slightly washed out. The audio track provides clear dialogue, and the surround channel is used effectively, such as in scenes where crowds are cheering and clapping during school assemblies. Unfortunately, the only bonus feature included on the disc is the film’s trailer. The disc comes packed in a standard Blu-ray keepcase with a cardboard slipcover.
1080p / Widescreen 2.40:1
Audio: English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio Surround, English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio Stereo
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Extras: Trailer (2:03)
Overall, Freak Show is an entertaining film, with some great performances, but it seems a bit confused as to what tone it is aiming for. While the trailer seems to promote a comedy—and there are many funny moments—the film itself is more of a dramedy. It touches on some more serious topics, but glosses over the consequences of these. While the overall message of the film is positive, I think it could have been even more effective had it conveyed a little more of seriousness of the attacks on Billy (or just left this part out completely if it was going for a straight-up comedy). Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray release provides a solid presentation but lacks any bonus material. Due to this, I would suggest a rental before a blind buy.