There’s no denying that Billy Bloom is the most flamboyantly fabulous character in the history of high school movies — it’s not even close. A “trans-visionary gender obliviator” who’s been forcibly relocated from the liberal enclave of Darien, CT (“hometown of Chloë Sevigny!”) to an anonymous red state somewhere in flyover country, Billy struts into the heartland like Boy George showing up for a round of golf at Mar-a-Lago.
In fact, he even dresses like Boy George on the first day of class, riling up the cartoonishly conservative student body in the process. The local teens, insufferable archetypes who range from a Trump-quoting mean girl to an All-American football star with half a brain and a heart of gold, have no idea what to make of the colorful new kid, and they don’t have the slightest prayer of keeping up with his restless creativity or the fearlessness with which he puts it on display. Alas, that’s doubly true of Trudie Styler, the actress and producer making her narrative directorial debut with a film that required far more finesse than she’s able to muster for her first time helming a feature.
Erratically adapted from James St. James’ 2007 young adult novel of the same name, “Freak Show” is a hot mess with good intentions. It opens with a cloying voiceover in which our hot-blooded hero — played to sassy, sensitive, self-possessed perfection by British actor Alex Lawther — vaguely explains why he’s being forced to leave his beloved mother (Bette Midler) and move in with his somewhat bigoted father (Larry Pine), and promises that he’ll abide by the English class adage that it’s better to show than to tell. It takes him about five minutes to break that promise in the clumsiest fashion possible, and he doesn’t let up until the bitter end.
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Billy, who shows up to school in a more phenomenally provocative Colleen Atwood outfit every day, is so busy telling us about his new peers that he never bothers to hear any of them — AnnaSophia Robb plays a chatty gossip who welcomes him to her world with open arms, but Billy is so burdened the cross he bears that he literally doesn’t bother to learn her name. Of course, his cross is a terribly real burden. On a good day, most of the kids throw things at him or call him all the usual names. On a bad day, three degenerates beat him into a coma. And when Billy wakes up, he has to deal with Lynette (a miscast Abigail Breslin), the neo-con nightmare who thinks that becoming prom queen might be enough to make America great again. Thank God for Flip Kelly (a wildly miscast Ian Nelson), the handsome jock who eventually convinces Billy to campaign against Lynette.
Flip, it turns out, has daddy issues of his own — not that the movie shows the slightest interest in hearing about them. “Freak Show” skitters from one schematic and emotionally instructive beat to the next, seldom sitting still long enough to allow for even its most sparkling moments to cohere into actual scenes, or for any of the supporting cast to blossom into believable people. Billy is a rich character in every sense of the word (his dad is loaded to the hilt, a prominent detail that has zero effect on the story), but while it should be great to see someone so young live so loudly, the volume soon grows deafening.
Working from a script by Patrick J. Clifton and Beth Rigazio, whose writing lacks the wit or insight necessary to justify its shapelessness, Styler’s film often doesn’t share its protagonist’s gift for tuning all of that noise into music. There are moments when everything syncs up, such as Billy’s book report on “The Great Gatsby” which turns into a frenzied one-man show about the suffering of Zelda Fitzgerald. For the most part, however, it just plows ahead, Lawther’s impassioned and beautifully non-binary performance exposing the chintziness of everyone around him. There isn’t an actress alive who could have spared Billy’s alcoholic mother from feeling like a parody of a bad parent, and Midler is totally lost at sea in an awkward mid-movie cameo that Styler shoots with the broadness of a sitcom. Pine is less phony in the role of Billy’s father, but his character is even more simplistic.
In a bad movie that may nevertheless have tremendous, even life-saving value for kids who struggle to be accepted for who they are, however glamorous that might be, Mr. Bloom’s sudden, inevitable acceptance of his son is so hollow and unearned that it could feel like a slap in the face for some of the very same people it’s intended to reassure. It’s no small detail that “Freak Show” is set in a different and very relatable environment, but when it premieres at a festival that’s also screening the nuanced and blisteringly beautiful “Call Me By Your Name,” it’s that much harder to excuse such a forced and ingratiating attempt at getting people to see the world for all of its fabulousness.
“Freak Show” premiered in the Generation 14Plus section of the 2017 Berlin Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.