If sensitive intentions were all that counted, the debut directorial narrative feature from Trudie Styler, prolific producer, occasional actress and longtime Sting wife, might be a masterpiece — or at least an amiable John Hughes-esque teen fable about overcoming bullying and Being True To Yourself. But despite being based on the novel of the same name by James St. James, and undoubtedly driven by the best of motives, “Freak Show” is haphazardly thrown together, full of unexplained contrivances and characters so pliably bendy to the whims of the contorted yet formulaic narrative that they might as well be made of pipe cleaners.
At best it’s irritatingly good-natured and desirous to please, like a puppy that just wants to play but keeps tracking mud all through the house. At worst it’s actually self-defeating, with the silliness of some of the plot twists and the thinness of the character motivations actively undercutting any investment in the emotional journey of our would-be embattled-but-valiant hero. That Styler’s years as a successful producer (her company is behind films such as “Moon,” “American Honey” and upcoming Sundance hit “Novitiate“) have obviously given her a keen eye for talent behind and in front of the camera only makes it feel like so much more of a missed opportunity. I mean, we’ve waited years for a big-screen glimpse of Bette Midler and it happens as a poorly-written cameo in this?
Our hero, Billy Bloom, is played with total commitment by talented young British actor Alex Lawther, who made an impression as the young Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game” and whose sad-pierrot face is the film’s most convincing asset. Billy is proudly, defiantly, flamboyantly queer, in fact his defining quality, according to his own, hinkily deployed voiceover narration, is his “fabulousness.” This is as a result of a childhood spent in the orbit of his alcoholic but also-apparently-fabulous mother Muv (Bette Midler) whose name, it is a relief to discover, is not some unbearable version of “Mum” but actually short for her real name.
But in response to Muv’s sudden abandonment (which is not explained until later, and very unsatisfyingly at that) Billy is sent to live with his remote and conservative father (Larry Pine) in, basically, a huge mansion — the film’s obliviousness to any issues other than gender, such as economic challenge or academic struggle gives it an airy, unreal, myopic quality: when letting your freak flag fly it probably helps if your castle-like home is equipped with an actual flagpole. Billy must attend a hyperconformist high school at which Mean Girl Abigail Breslin is a shoo-in for homecoming queen, and everyone’s in love with football star Mark “Flip” Kelly (Ian Nelson).
Flip is not only gorgeous but also kind, unbelievably friendly and protective towards Billy, who shows up in a succession of ever-more-elaborate outfits (the cost of which, in sequins alone, would surely have been beyond the reach of most teenagers). And Flip is also then revealed to have an ambivalent relationship to football and Hidden Artistic Depths when he recognizes Dad’s (original) Jackson Pollock. Flip could not be less real if he were actually made of unicorns and stardust.
With wildly inconsistent characters like Flip, his father and Muv around, it’s impossible to invest in any real stakes for Billy, even when his steadfast refusal to compromise his “gender obliviator” persona gets him bullied and beaten up. And when the increasing hostility from Breslin’s Queen Bee and her ilk (“Make America great again” she squeaks, inevitably, at one point) galvanizes him to mount a challenge for Homecoming Queen, we immediately know where all this is going, and then just have to pass the time until the predestined, haltingly delivered but stirring speech that makes everything okay at the end.
“Freak Show” is a tiresome muddle. But its most glaring flaw is how much it undersells Billy as a character. Who is he, underneath the costumes and make up? What are his interests, apart from himself? Is he good at math? The film’s preoccupation with Billy’s sexuality denies him any other characteristics and after a while his outrageous outfits and exaggeratedly melodramatic pronouncements start to feel less like self-expression and more like self-obsession. Amid all the other cliches, Billy is never challenged by the realization that perhaps the best way to have people understand him, is to show a little interest in understanding them. Considering he can’t even be bothered to find out the name of the one girl who befriends him from the start (Anna-Sophia Robb, whose character is literally known as Blah Blah Blah for two-thirds of the film) that seems unlikely.
No one can deny the rightness or bravery of demanding to be accepted for who you are, but what if who you are is a bit of a narcissist? Having the world of “Freak Show” fall so neatly into orbit around Billy at the end is not just facile, on all but the most sketchily representational levels, it does a disservice to the many teenagers struggling with these issues in the real world where they have other things on their plates too.
Growing up is hard, and growing up as a teenager with a fluid sexual identity is even harder — so much so that we should expect a little more than clumsy good intentions and bland, coddling formula from this sort of story. Kindness, tolerance and understanding cut both ways, and all of those qualities are surely more important to a fulfilled life than mere fabulousness, however fabulous it is. [C]