Going to a film festival can be tricky, because a lack of trailer means you can only rely on short and vague descriptions of films. “An inventive, genre-bending psychological sci-fi thriller” is a wide enough description that the resulting film could go really bad, or it could be like Freaks, which is both a timely social commentary, and a thrilling film about parenting with a little sci-fi touch.
We follow Chloe (newcomer Lexy Kolker, who has a bright future ahead of her), a bold and precocious 7-year-old living with her dad (Emile Hirsch). While the walls of their depilated house are crumbling, Chloe and her dad seem to have a good relationship. Sure, he is overly protective, and a bit paranoid, but he does love her, and he also keeps her locked in the house and tells her the people outside will kill her if she leaves. Writer-directors Adam Stein and Zach Lipovsky make it clear that their feature debut isn’t going to go full Room, but it’s more in the vein of 10 Cloverfield Lane, where the audience keeps guessing whether the crazy captor is actually in the right about the dangers outside.
Cinematographer Stirling Bancroft shoots the film completely from Chloe’s perspective. Paranoia and claustrophobia are mixed with low-angle shots to make the world of Freaks seem too big for out young protagonist. When the dad finally drifts off because of his lack of sleep, Chloe finally makes a break for it and enters the outside world. The camera takes Chloe’s side as we look up to every person she comes across, towering over her while the disorienting light and bright colours make the world of the film seem like a dream. Chloe quickly gets enticed by an ice-cream salesman outside her house (Bruce Dern, in his first sci-fi role since Silent Running in ’72), and while he seems off, they enter a dangerous world that is always on the lookout for freaks – people who look just like us but are somehow different and dangerous.
To say more than that is to ruin all the wonderful surprises that Lipovsky and Stein have in store, and they are many! Just know that they have created a rich and detailed world that is an obvious parallel to our own, with a lot to say about refugees and the fear of “others” coming to your country and what they pass on to their children. While restrained by its budget and scope, Freaks does manage to have some impressive visual effects and a few gory bits once it goes into high gear in the second half of the film. Once the film starts giving the audience some answers as to what’s going on both outside and inside the house, the film’s colour-palette becomes more grounded, and the dream-like colours give way to more muted tones.
Freaks feels like an even more grounded, small-scale version of the X-Men, a sci-fi film filled with surprises, a message about parenthood and wanting to keep your child safe and isolated from the world, and a future star in Lexy Kolker.