Wearing its queer credentials on its brightly coloured, ruffled sleeve, this flamboyant drama delivers a remarkably steely message about identity. It may be archly made by first-time feature director Trudie Styler (aka Mrs Sting), but it’s also beautifully anchored in another richly detailed, deeply committed performance from Alex Lawther (Departure).
There’s no surprise that this is a story about an artistically expressive young man. Freak Show is, after all, based on the novel by James St. James, who told his own story in the book Disco Bloodbath and its film adaptation Party Monster. Screenwriters Patrick Clifton and Beth Rigazio include a remarkable amount of detail from this novel in their screenplay, including a range of vivid characters who swirl around the central figure of Billy Bloom (Lawther), a teenager forced to leave his free-spirited life with bonkers mother Muv (the fabulous Bette Midler) and move into a stiff family mansion with his banker dad William (Larry Pine). Entering a new high school, Billy refuses to pull any punches, dressing each day like an haute couture runway model, which doesn’t go down so well in this red-state community.
Instantly threatened, head cheerleader Lynette (Abigail Breslin, nifty casting for Little Miss Sunshine herself) makes his life a misery, while the school bullies (Daniel Bellomy and Walden Hudson) verbally and physically assault him at every opportunity. But Billy also makes some friends, including a talkative outcast (AnnaSophia Robb) and the super-hot football star Flip (Ian Nelson), who has some complex reasons for hanging out with the outrageously defiant Billy. And after the bullying turns seriously violent, Billy defiantly decides to run against Lynette for homecoming queen.
The scope of this story sometimes feels a little outsized for an independently minded movie, but that might be the point. Styler never hedges around the subject, diving into even the most difficult scenes head-on. This cleverly reflects the way Billy refuses to compromise himself, and Lawther takes a number of risks with this role. Billy isn’t always likeable, and often feels like little more than a provocateur, but Lawther’s eyes continually reveal a teenager trying to figure out who he is while resisting pressure from everyone around him. It’s a vulnerable performance that never winks at the camera: no matter how hilariously in-your-face Billy is, his story isn’t a joke. His elaborate costumes may seem silly, but they are an expression of his insecurity. Opposite Lawther, Nelson delivers a rising-star turn that never goes where the audience thinks it will. And the supporting cast is excellent, including terrific cameos from the likes of Laverne Cox and John McEnroe.
Freak Show is the kind of movie that feels like it might spiral out of control at any moment, so watching it is often exhilarating. It taps into important themes about bigotry and prejudice, sexuality and coming out, and even awkward first love. But the story is actually about a person who nourishes the creative spark within him, finding unexpected ways to express himself. And that’s properly inspirational, because even though we would never dare to be as glorious as Billy, we might be encouraged to let just a bit more of our colours show.