Her shirt. It snagged my eye as strange, but I couldn’t immediately identify why. It doesn’t suit a seven-year-old somehow. Then I saw the snaps dangling just below her belly, and noticed the details on the shoulder. It’s a onesie, the kind that fastens snuggly around infants. At first, it’s a curious costuming choice. But as writers/directors Zach Lipovsky and Adam B. Stein peel back the layers of their intimate and intense sci-fi thriller, the secrets spill out, and curious details transform into clues that reveal a world marvelous and monstrous.
Freaks centers on a willful little girl named Chloe (Lexy Kolker), who longs for love and company but is forbidden from leaving the house, a place of peeling paint, rotted wood, and smudged windows papered over to keep the outside world out. “You got to be a good girl,” her harried father (Emile Hirsch) warns, “Or else the bad guys will find you.” Ever caked in sweat, dingy tees, and a hapless beard, Chloe’s father seems paranoid and dangerously unhinged, drilling the young girl on what to say if someone comes snooping. She has an alias to give, along with an elaborate cover story about her family and interests. The hiding, the lying, it all stinks of something unsavory. But nothing is what it seems in Freaks.
On the surface, Chloe appears to be a normal little girl, who craves affection, ice cream, and the occasional trip to a playground. Her father seems an irrational tyrant with rules that are as cruel as they are confusing. But Freaks introduces Chloe’s story from her naïve and childish perspective. As she learns more about the outside world, so too do we. However, she is spared a mature understanding of its threats even as they come banging on her door. See, Chloe’s not normal. She’s got superpowers. She’s a “freak” according to the government agents who would hunt her down, pitch her into a detention center, or shoot her on sight. But despite her dad’s desperate and dedicated efforts, he can’t protect her every moment. (What dad could?) And eventually, the outside world creeps in, pushing this family to its limits and into a violent and spectacular climax.
That Freaks is a low-key superhero story is revealed early in the second act. But Lipovsky and Stein have plenty more surprises in store that I won’t dare spoil here. Still, it’s thrilling that in a time where a slew of big-budget, spectacle-stuffed superhero movies barge into multiplexes all year long, something this intimate and unique this can blossom. Freaks feels like an outstanding indie X-Men movie, and could be a stellar double feature with Julia Hart’s similarly lean and meaningful Fast Color. There’s a delicious unpredictability here, as we have no comics or pre-existing characters to color our expectations. There’s no shiny spandex. No glamorous hero shots. No need to play it safe. Instead, there’s Chloe, in mismatched socks and a grungy onesie, with a snarl of untamed curls, marching out to the ice cream truck of the suspicious Mr. Snowcone (Bruce Dern), unknowingly throwing herself into a world of trouble.
With some smartly chosen genre elements, Lipovsky and Stein spin an original and gritty story of love and parenthood. And while the spectacle of superpowers unleashed is satisfyingly thrilling, Freaks is at its best when it focuses on the all too real dangers that face its tiny protagonist. We share her dad’s terrible understanding of how cruel the world can be, and his suffocating fear that he can’t protect her from every harm. She is confronted by a stranger promising sweets from his van, the rejection of a group of glorious but mean girls, or the government agent who’d stoically rip child from parent because of a fear-mongering agenda against these so-called “illegals.” And with each, I was raw with worry, drawing ragged breaths as tears streaked down my cheeks and my heart hammered with hope for her salvation.
Admittedly, the story stumbles a bit in its clunky final act, as it rushes to work in more complicated elements and threads amid some sparking action. Still, the journey is as rich with imagination as it is twists, emotion, and riveting performances. Hirsch and Dern bring an eerie gravitas to Freaks, while little Kolker shoulders the film, her eyes fierce in defiance, rage, and longing. Her Chloe never feels cloying or falsely precocious. Instead, Kolker’s sullenness and surprising restraint ground the film in a world so real that all its threats–even those paranormal–feel authentic and alarming. Simply put, Freaks is sharp, suspenseful, and emotionally electrifying.
Freaks made its World Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 7th
Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko is a regular contributor on the Slashfilmcast, and teaches a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com