TIFF Review: 'Freaks'

(Canada/USA, 104 min.)
Written and directed by Zach Lipovsky, Adam Stern
Starring: Emile Hirsch, Lexy Kolker, Bruce Dern
Programme: Discovery (World Premiere)
Courtesy of TIFF

meets X-Men in the tense sci-fi family drama Freaks. This feature collaboration from Vancouver-born directors Zach Lipovsky and Adam Stein is a smart exercise in small-scale science fiction. Freaks takes a simple conceit, namely that an unnamed father (Emile Hirsch) shelters his daughter, Chloe (Lexy Kolker), from the outside world. Chloe has never left their house. Her dad knows that she is unwelcome in the world because, like him, Chloe has unique powers. The outside world is not a friendly place—and it’s uncomfortably familiar to the world we live in today with its hostility to outsiders and fear of difference.

Freaks relies on character and storytelling rather than special effects to achieve its enigmatic speculative atmosphere. Lipovsky and Stein provide little context for the catastrophe that has inspired the father to shelter Chloe from the world. They are hunted, as noted by all the locks on the door and murky paper covering the windows, and Chloe’s dad teaches her how to lie and tell cover stories--home school lessons for the doomsday era. Contained mostly in the dark confines of the family home, the story ripples with paranoid tension. Chloe’s dad might seem crazy, but then blood starts dripping from his eyes and Chloe begins seeing people in her closet, Freaks tips off the audience that there is a lot to this little girl’s life that her dad isn’t telling her.

Hirsch gives a strong performance as the devoted father who fries his nerves protecting Chloe from a world that doesn’t accept her for who she is. Freaks arguably hands Kolker a bit too much of the dramatic responsibility to carry. Unlike Jacob Tremblay’s inquisitive and adorable Jack in Room, this performance needs a lot more than childlike wonder. The young actress succeeds in this aspect of the character, but proves a bit shrill when Chloe becomes the dominant force in the film and her powers are swayed by temptations to cross over to the dark side.

However, Freaks pairs the young lead with veteran actor Bruce Dern (Nebraska) in the outside world. Dern is downright sinister as the creepy old man in the ice cream truck who beckons Chloe to betray her dad. The promise of sweet chocolate ice cream inspires Chloe’s escape and she quickly becomes the old man’s ward as he takes her to places she’s only imagined, like parks or playgrounds. Freaks finds a great coup in landing an actor of Dern’s stature (as with Hirsch) and makes the most of the opportunity, to create rich and lively characters.

The themes of acceptance, tolerance, and diversity add to the psychological richness of the film as the family works together to harness their powers and save Chloe’s mother (Amanda Crew) from a death camp for undesired freaks. The film only builds the scale of its visuals as the emotions swell and the tension rises while Chloe and her family fight for their place in a world that doesn’t want them. The effects never overwhelm the film since Lipovsky and Stein know that the strength of Freaks lives in its story and its characters, and the film never overplays its hand while absorbing us in this young girl’s plight. As an exercise in innovative, low-budget filmmaking, Freaks impresses by creating a menacing world that is rooted in reality. It’s strange, yet familiar, as Chloe wrestles with her desire to be part of a community when she doesn’t fit in.