Alex Lawther is finally given the chance to show off the lighter side of his dysfunctional adolescent speciality in Freak Show and does so with an excess of panache and eyeliner alike. The film itself, a directorial debut for actress/producer Trudie Styler, lacks nuance and more than a passing foot in the present day.
Billy Bloom is the outrageous creation of celebutante author James St. James, whose book this film is based upon. A head to toe diva of postmodernist indulgence, Bloom is the self-proclaimed ‘transvisionary’ son of a fabulous alcoholic (Bette Midler) and uptight conservative (Larry Pine). The former is his idol – despite having long-since abandoned him – whilst the latter is his jailor – despite giving him everything he could want for in a luxury mid-west mansion. Everything, of course, except emotional support.
Though Freak Show is billed as the story of a so-called ‘gender obliviator’ running for homecoming queen at his new, ultra-conservative school, this is a plot that doesn’t actually kickstart until a good hour in to the film. Planted somewhere between The Perks of Being a Wallflower and St Trinian’s, the most part of the film is instead devoted to an ironically heteronormative approach to the American high school formula. A newcomer at a generically cast school – from mean girls to the sensitive footballer – Billy is an outsider bullied into semi-conformity until he decides to embrace his own identity. That being one armed with ‘an unflinching sense of style, glamour and a closet full of frocks, bangles and beads’.
Styler tells her story, adapted to script by Raising Helen writers Beth Rigazio and Patrick J. Clifton, with strokes as broad as Billy’s eyeliner. He is not simply bullied, he is put into a coma for five days; his rival is not just self-obsessed, she is a hideous, Trump-quoting homophobic. Whilst such characters are certainly not unbelievable in a wider world, they lack nuance in a film already dominated by Billy. Likewise, Styler is too ready to assume that we will sympathise with her hero, in spite of his tendencies towards self-centeredness. ‘Would it kill you to cut off the crusts?’ He snaps at his housekeeper in one scene.
Lawther is terrifically exuberant as Billy, shining particularly in one – oddly random performance-in-performance – scene as Zelda Fitzgerald. Against him, none here are especially noteworthy bar a comic cameo from John McEnroe. Midler is over the top and Pine is well under it. The characterisations don’t help, being all spotlight, when it’s the shadows that really pique interest.
Misgivings aside, Freak Show does at least have a blast with both pop cultural references – Pulp Fiction! The Naked Civil Servant! Dorian Grey! – and individualist empowerment. In the same vein of Love, Simon, earlier this year, it’s pleasing to find mainstream cinema more willing to embrace the stories and cultures of an underrepresented LGBTQ community.
Perhaps the situation of Billy won’t resonate in a world that has, unlike the film, moved on since the eighties, but his identity quest will. His finale speech is among the more rousing to find a home in feel-good cinema: ‘We’ve each got a flag to fly, just some of us are flying them on the inside.’
Freak Show screams for a more dynamic telling of its familiar story but waves a worthy flag and offers yet further proof that Lawther is among the most exciting talents of the present day.