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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that although Freak Show is about rising above homophobia in high school, it doesn't have much iffy content and is age-appropriate for most young teens. Characters do use homophobic slurs ("f-g," etc.) and other mild profanity ("a--hole"), and there's one disturbing scene of a hate crime against a non-resisting gay teen, but these moments are balanced by the many examples of support that main character Billy (Alex Lawther) receives. Billy's mom (Bette Midler) is an alcoholic, and there's a scene in which he's humiliated for getting aroused during gym class, but nothing graphic is shown. With themes of empathy and courage, the film -- which is based on the same-named novel by James St. James -- might be helpful for many teens who are just starting to grapple with these issues, as well as for those who are wondering how to be allies. Abigail Breslin and AnnaSophia Robb co-star; Trudie Styler directs.
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What's the story?
In FREAK SHOW, Billy Bloom (Alex Lawther) is an out-and-proud teen with an over-the-top but supportive mother, Muv (Bette Midler). Unfortunately, when Muv is suddenly out of the picture, Billy has to go live with his estranged father, William (Larry Pine), in a Bible Belt-esque region and attend a conservative new high school. Despite his hostile environs, Billy isn't inclined to stop dressing like Boy George circa 1983 or change his mannerisms -- because that's who he is. He runs into some predictable resistance (including from a classmate played by Abigail Breslin) that turns surprisingly savage. But this endlessly witty, life-filled kid isn't the giving-up type, and he gets some key support from a brainy girl (AnnaSophia Robb) and a hunky football player (Ian Nelson).
Is it any good?
This film is the rare empowerment tale that doesn't feel condescending or rote. It's lively and witty, largely due to a script (adapted by Patrick J. Clifton and Beth Rigazio from James St. James' bestseller) that's loaded with gems that drip with panache from Lawther's mouth. For example, the transplanted showbiz fan refers to his school's mean girls as "The ladies who lynch." And when they refer to "people like you," he responds, "You mean amazing people?" When a teacher stands by as Billy is attacked by his classmates, Billy asks, "You're just going to stand there like a good German?" Then, after his first day at school is filled with general hatred, he swoops in his front door and fabulously proclaims, "I was a hit!" Lawther has the withering delivery and pain beneath Billy's external glitter down. The cast is strong in general, with Midler perfectly placed as the idolized Muv and veteran character actor Pine turning in a genuine performance as William. Robb is charming as the busy bee with a plan, and Nelson is well-cast as the big man on campus who might be there to help ... or to hurt. There are also well-placed cameos by John McEnroe as a coach/gym teacher and Laverne Cox as a reporter (her delivery of the simple line "I do not" is a scene stealer).
Freak Show marks the feature directorial debut of actress-producer-philanthropist Trudie Styler (wife of Sting), and it's quite self-assured. She's aided by twice Oscar-nominated cinematographer Dante Spinotti (The Last of the Mohicans, The Insider), editor Sarah Flack (Lost in Translation), and costume, hair, and makeup departments (headed by Lisa Harlow-Powell, Jennifer Tremont, and Anouck Sullivan) that must have had a great time with Billy's many outfits and mood changes. Styler's approach is calm and trusting of her actors and material. We get to see people relating to each other; we get to feel the emotional punches land. Part of that trust is shown in Styler's decision to not over-score moments: She switches between Dan Romer's score and well-chosen pop songs. Styler and company effectively deliver the material's message, as spoken by Billy, which is either "You're all freaks, too; isn't that what being a teenager is all about?" or "Without hope, you cannot live, and without glamour, you can't live well."
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about how Freak Show's depiction of gay teens compares to other portrayals you've seen in movies and on TV. What does it mean to see an out-and-proud protagonist of this age, in this environment?
Was it important to show the struggles of the teens who wanted to be Billy's friends and allies? Why? Were those depictions realistic?
Main characters in stories are often agents of change -- their presence or their actions often set off transformations around them. How does Billy fit that bill here?
- In theaters: January 12, 2018
- On DVD or streaming: June 5, 2018
- Cast: Alex Lawther, Bette Midler, Abigail Breslin, AnnaSophia Robb, Ian Nelson
- Director: Trudie Styler
- Studio: IFC Films
- Genre: Comedy
- Topics: Book Characters, High School
- Character strengths: Courage, Empathy
- Run time: 95 minutes
- MPAA rating: NR
- Last updated: September 20, 2019
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