Freak Show takes a well-worn plot and decides to give it a bit of a twisting. Billy Bloom (Alex Lawther) is forced to leave the big city and his beloved Muv (his flamboyant mother played by Bette Midler) behind when he moves in with his dad who he hasn’t seen for seven years. Now living in the Red States, he suddenly finds that being gay with a penchant for drag isn’t the best way to fit in and in fact attracts violence. Billy ain’t no wilting flower, however, and he strikes back by letting his freak flag fly and running for homecoming queen.
All of this calls for one fabulous central performance, and in Alex Lawther, this film has it. Perhaps best known for playing introverted characters in X+Y and The Imitation Game he couldn’t be further from that here. He embraces Billy’s eccentricities and turns him from someone who could have very easily been a campy stereotype into someone with heart and soul. You end up caring for this kid and loving him for his scything wit and outrageous outfits.
And it’s that wit which keeps Freak Show chugging along nicely. This is laugh out loud funny the whole way through, and whether he’s cutting cheerleaders down with his assessments on their fashion sense or providing postmarks to the everyday homophobia he receives, Billy’s lines are delivered with perfect comic timing. The same sadly can’t be said for the jock with an artist’s soul Flip who is played with a wide-eyed look by Ian Nelson. He’s a rare misstep in the film as he never seems to pin down exactly what his character is and struggles because of it. He’s meant to have more to him than the meatheads that surround him, but we never believe it.
The rest of the supporting cast step up though with Abigail Breslin being unafraid to dive into the right-wing villain and homecoming queen rival Lynette whose views on gay people will have you gritting your teeth a few times. It’s a thoroughly dislikable role, and there are no soft edges to her portrayal of it. There might be an element of pantomime to this film but pantomime villain she is not, and it’s no accident that she proclaims to want to ‘make America great again’.
As someone with a tin-eye for fashion, I’m stepping into unknown territory when I say that the clothing in this film is spectacular. If Billy’s outfits fall flat, the film goes with them, but there’s no danger of that. Whether riding a giant high heel on the back of a float or wearing a wedding dress, they are all something to behold. Said wedding dress also plays a part in the most creative scene in a movie that on the whole is directed down the line by first timer Trudie Styler. When Billy is attacked, it almost takes the form of a dance before it drops into the horrifically violent. The dreamlike nature of it could feel slightly out of place but combined with his outfit choice for the day it transforms into something special.
That moment aside, Freak Show is not going to win awards for originality. It draws heavily from coming of age films like Mean Girls and Clueless, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s a glorious tribute to being whoever the fuck you want to be, and that’s a joyous thing to witness. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and by the end, you might just feel like you can take on your world.
Verdict: Hall of Fame