Though the shooting of Trudie Styler’s Freak Show predates the victory of a certain Donald Trump, it’s a film that feels remarkably pertinent, exploring the perpetual conflict between free-thinkers and the narrow-minded, the liberals against the ignorant – and how it seems that, in most cases these days, it’s the latter who come out on top. This is an incongruity that has been studiously, and playfully examined in this indelible drama, through the prism of cross-dressing teenager Billy Bloom.
Alex Lawther makes his American debut in the aforementioned role, a young man who thrives in being fabulous. Owing much to his eccentric, gloriously extravagant mother – who he affectionately calls Muv (Bette Midler), he is forced to go and live with his far more conservative father (Larry Pine) and thus begin life at a new school. Contemplating toning down his vibrant choice of attire, he thinks better of it, wearing as outlandish and bold an outfit as he could muster up – complete with much eye shadow, of course – and heads to meet his new classmates. Naturally, he faces much persecution and bullying, and after being viciously attacked and consigned to a coma, he garners the support of the popular football player Flip Kelly (Ian Nelson) giving him the confidence (not that he needed any) to run against the ungracious, prejudiced Lynette (Abigail Breslin) for the honour of being crowned Homecoming Queen – and he intends to run his campaign on one thing and one thing only; sass.
Unfortunately, and in spite of the engaging aspects, and heartfelt underlying message of equality, and how, regardless of our image, we’re all innately the same – this picture comes riddled with cliché, and though somewhat affectionate in its nods to classic American high-school dramas of the John Hughes mould, it’s frustratingly inclination to follow the beats of the formula work against it, particularly when we’re dealing with such a subversive, unpredictable protagonist, it’s a shame to see the film doesn’t follow suit. And yet at the heart of this tale, and the film’s paramount appeal, is the staggeringly impressive turn by Lawther, who manages to be so overtly confident in the role, and yet internally so vulnerable. Billy Bloom is a role who is vying to understand his own identity and place in the world, and parallels in this regard can be drawn to the character Lawther portrays in Departure, and while that was a far more introverted role, this performance is still no less subtle.
There’s a really heartening message to be taken away from Freak Show; that we’re all a little different, each with our own quirks and idiosyncrasies, and we should embrace our differences rather than be ashamed of them. So while it’s fair to assume many of us aren’t very similar to Billy Bloom (well, in that going to school dressed up like a corpse bride has never crossed my mind anyway), this picture still speaks to a broad audience. Plus, Billy Bloom is absolutely fabulous, and you may just spent the entire day following this film feeling more confident and assured in who you are – and if cinema can have the power to have that effect, then it’s something we should most definitely celebrate and cherish.