Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Freaks: Back to the Dystopian Near-Future

It should be reassuring to know the ice creams trucks are still working in the dystopian future. Then again, when was an ice cream man good news in genre cinema? Rather inconveniently, ice cream represents the freedom of outside life to a seven-year-old girl rebelling against the rigid control of her over-protective father. It also tastes delicious. Unfortunately, he has good reason to be concerned for her safety in Zach Lipovsky & Adam B. Stein’s Freaks, which opens this Friday in New York.

This Freaks is very different from Tod Browning’s Freaks. For one thing, they look just like everyone else—but they’re not. At first, it is not exactly clear what is going on in this not-so-very-near-future world. Chloe’s dad acts like the world outside is an apocalyptic wasteland and the news reports of massive terrorist attacks seem to support that impression. However, when Chloe disobediently ventures outside her boarded-up house, her neighborhood looks very much like our here-and-now.

We also soon discover Chloe has some pretty serious powers. Her father insists she is a perfectly normal little girl, but the weird, looks-like-he-should-be-on-a-special-offenders-registry Mr. Snowcone (whose ice cream truck always appears at opportune moments) encourages her to develop her gifts. Sadly, the more her father tries to contain her, the more she resents it, becoming dangerously emotional.

To their credit, Lipovsky & Stein pull off some masterful misdirection in the first act that really keeps us guessing, but the film’s underlying conflict is really nothing new. Frankly, after decades of X-Men comic books and movies, it would be far more interesting to visit a genre world where the super-powered “others” secretly living among us really represent a deliberate and malicious threat to society that must be rooted out. That would also better reflect the perils we face in this day and age, considering the number of foreign agents believed to be operating on our soil as sleeper cells (at least that is what the opening of the sadly canceled The Enemy Within told us).

Young Lexy Kolker is a bit like Drew Barrymore in Firestarter, but scarier and more erratic. Regardless, Emile Hirsch provides the film’s true emotional center as the father who is absolutely desperate to save his daughter. On the other hand, Bruce Dern is way too creepy and sleazy looking for the character of Mr. Snowcone. Seriously, if you saw him loitering around a playground, you would call the cops. Speaking of the law, Grace Park provides a steady and authoritative presence as the moderate sounding Agent Ray, helping to further muddy viewers’ assumptions.

Lipovsky & Stein crank up the tension and the suspense quite adroitly. They succeed in pulling us in and keeping us on pins-and-needles, even though it is rather disappointing how familiar the story turns out to be. Of course, if originality were easy, everyone would do it. Recommended for the tight, tense execution rather than the stale dystopian elements, Freaks opens this Friday (9/13) in Brooklyn, at the Regal Sheepshead Bay.