Freaks follows a young girl (Lexy Kolker) who is locked away in a dilapidated house by her controlling father (Emile Hirsch). As she is ever-tempted to go into the outside world, particularly by a mysterious man in an ice cream truck, she plans an escape to find a new family and finally have a mother. But the outside world, and even herself, are not all they seem to be.
If the previews aren't enough proof, Freaks has nothing to do with the highly controversial 1932 film of the same name. This 2018/19 (depending on your release date) version is more like X-Men on arthouse steroids. Its plot is low-key, its setting claustrophobic, and its action limited. It's more about the characters and the story. But with a concept centered around what basically equates to mutants, is that enough?
Hirsch has a knack for roles like this nowadays and he seems to be having a good time playing what essentially equates to a mutant. Kolker moves back and forth between a sympathetic figure and facial expressions that are reminiscent of Damien from The Omen. Bruce Dern, who plays Mr. Snowcone the ice cream vendor, does his best impression of Reverend Henry Kane from Poltergeist II. The overall dynamics of these characters inevitably follow suit with the awkwardly constructed story.
The weirdness of the story does more to hurt the overall film rather than help it. There was clearly a massive commitment to having mysteries established early to be solved later, and several of these mysteries would have been solved by some simple communication. This lack of communication, especially early on, leads the audience not to trust the truth, with is delivered on the regular after the first act. So by the time you catch up with the lies being over, you're thrown into a world with X-Men-powered people.
The lower budget obviously doesn't allow for epic scenes of action, but still the plot tends to drag from within the walls of the decrepit home. Rather than use it as a claustrophobic weapon, it's more of a bore and you can't wait for the girl to break out just to get a change of pace, let alone scenery.
The overall plot is interesting, but so many veins of the world aren't explored fully. They aren't intended to, but sometimes you wish you'd get just a little bit more. While I'm comparing it to X-Men somewhat facetiously, it does remind me quite a bit of Push, with the way the powers are used and how they interact in the "real world". But just like how that movie takes way too much time to ramp up, Freaks is even slower.
But perhaps the greatest flaw of the film is the lack of definitive empathy for either side. Yes, the general population is seen as the evil bigots that are scared of the "freaks" and their powers to the point of exterminating them and placing them in what equates to a concentration camp, but at the same time, the way the freaks retaliate feels more cold and brutal than Magneto on his worst day. Even the little girl seems to jump on the "us vs. them" bandwagon disturbingly quickly. The complete dismissal of humanity from these characters when they're confronted by normal people makes the sympathy you are likely supposed to share with them virtually absent. Everybody feels like a bad guy sans the brief moments of love shown between family members of the oppressed freaks. And it all culminates in a finale that ends in what I consider an abrupt moment in which the characters feel more enraged and hate-filled than at peace. It makes for a feeling that reminds one of the first episode of a Netflix show that you can binge...except there's nothing left to binge. You're left wanting.
I don't say all that to say I hated it. Quite the contrary, it was a fun, personal take on the mutant/racism concept. But it was also flawed, struggling with pacing and fluidity, particularly in its characters and their interactions. Overall, it feels more like a Netflix original, and perhaps would have been more impressive sitting unsuspectingly on a couch rather than from the seat of a theater.