[Fantasia Festival 2019 Review] Freaks is a Mystery Box Worth Opening

As I said in my review of One Shot of the Dead, I’m not beholden to hiding spoilers if it’s necessary to discuss the movie. But when it comes to mystery box narratives the like J.J. Abrams is famous for, I think it’s best to know as little as possible so you can enjoy the actual puzzle solving. Would it have been a bad thing to know the twists of 10 Cloverfield Lane, for example? Probably not, but watching it with friends who didn’t know where it was going was a joy I wouldn’t want to rob someone.

So I’m going to limit what I discuss with Freaks because I do think most of the fun of this movie comes from figuring out where it’s going. I'd also recommend NOT reading some reviews like one at Indie Wire that kind of ruin what the movie is about.

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7-year-old Chloe (Lexy Kolker) has never been outside. She’s lived in a kind of crumbling house for her entire existence and the outside world has become an almost mystical place for her. One she sneaks glimpses of from behind heavily curtained and taped windows. There's a flock of crows flying in the sky. An ice cream truck with the name Mr. Snowcone brightly painted on the side. All presented as an over-exposed and blindingly bright world. “You gotta be a good hider. Otherwise the bad guys will find you,” her Dad (Emile Hirsch) tells her, with a hacking cough.

Her days are filled with lessons. She practices lying. That her name is Eleanor Reed and she was born March 9th (10th, Dad corrects). Her address. It's good to have some flavor to sound realistic, so her fake sister snores. They have contingency plans in case Dad doesn’t come back from his occasional trips outside for supplies. Each night, they practice breathing techniques to keep calm. They play poker with stacks of hundred dollar bills; there might be a million dollars there that they cavalierly play with. But Chloe is extremely lonely and one restless night she draws a stick figure on a pillow with an arrow pointing from the word “mom” that she hugs and cuddles.

Sometimes, though, dark things happen. Her closet bangs and shudders and when she opens it, she finds a screaming woman that terrifies her and causes her to hide in a homemade fort, whispering, “go away ghost, go away ghost, go away ghost…”

And sometimes Dad’s eyes bleed.

Freaks was written and directed by Zach Lipovsky and Adam B. Stein who’ve worked together and separately on a bunch of TV series, including this year’s Kim Possible TV movie, and shorts. And in some ways, it shows in Freaks, which feels like an entire season of a TV show condensed into a slight 104 minutes. Through TV snippets and overheard conversations, we learn a bit about the world outside of Chloe’s house. We know that some disastrous event happened in the last ten years that has divided the world. From the looks of it, it’s a violent, angry world on the television and yet when Chloe looks out the window, she sees bright colors and a welcoming life.

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The first act is appropriately mysterious, doling out nuggets of information and letting the viewer slowly understand what’s really going on. “You’re not normal yet! You’ll die if you go outside!” Dad yells at her in anger. But after some of the mystery starts to unravel, so much starts to happen so quickly, in terms of exposition and world building. And this is where I feel like a television series would have been more effective for this mysterious story. The second act kind of bogs down as more characters are introduced and the paranoia thriller aspects give way to a more straight-forward action movie, ironically mostly contained to one central location.

Once the plot starts to introduce Bruce Dern’s mysterious ice cream man and Grace Park’s (Battlestar Galactica) Ray character once Chloe sees the outside world, the pacing that kept me so interested started to slack. The near-future America seen outside the house is a world of detention camps and secret government agendas and divisions. It’s easy to draw connections to what’s happening at the border right now with this version of America in Freaks. But it’s just there mostly as window dressing because there’s no time to devote to it due to the more immediate story involving Chloe.

It’s an inventive movie, filmed beautifully by Stirling Bancroft who alternates between the claustrophobic and dark interiors of their house and the bright swirling world outside. It looks expensive and the action, when it happens, is staged beautifully. It’s also grounded by some fantastic performances by the three main actors.

I enjoyed Freaks a lot but it didn’t grab me the way I expected it to. I wanted to know more about the world hidden from Chloe. The hows and the whys. It’s obvious that filmmakers Zach and Adam have plans for the characters and story as it ends. I’m curious to see where it would go.