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With: Emile Hirsch, Lexy Kolker, Bruce Dern, Grace Park, Amanda Crew
Written by: Zach Lipovsky, Adam B. Stein
Directed by: Zach Lipovsky, Adam B. Stein
MPAA Rating: R for violence and some language
Running Time: 104
Date: 09/11/2019

Freaks (2019)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

'Freak'-ing Havoc

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Zach Lipovsky and Adam B. Stein's Freaks is a puzzle-box movie that should not be described so much as discovered.

It's an inventive, ingenious little low-budget sci-fi horror movie that presents some big ideas in a small arena.

At the outset, it shows us a frazzled, ragged father (Emile Hirsch) and his 7 year-old daughter Chloe (Lexy Kolker), sequestered inside a large, ramshackle house. It's badly in need of housekeeping, and the windows and doors are all sealed shut.

Chloe's unnamed dad quizzes her on a fake identity and fictional answers to all kinds of questions, the implication being that someone, or something, may come knocking at some point, and Chloe must be prepared.

Occasionally strange things happen, such as Chloe experiencing visions and interacting with people who aren't there, and her father sometimes bleeding from his eyes, like red tears.

Chloe is not allowed to go outside the house, for any reason, ever. This becomes problematic when her hunger for frozen treats is tempted by the appearance of Mr. Snowcone (Bruce Dern) and his ice cream truck, just outside their door.

Suffice to say that Chloe does get out, but from there, it's best to leave events to viewers curious enough to venture into this unique movie.

Co-writers and co-directors Lipovsky and Stein, who met when they both lost the reality TV show contest On the Lot in 2007, make their feature debut together, proving that reality shows are not exactly the most dependable arbiters of talent.

Like all the best low-budget movies, Lipovsky and Stein use limitations to their advantage, with a large percentage of the movie generating story, suspense, and character without ever leaving the house.

The key is that they withhold key information in order to tantalize, create a mystery, and lure viewers toward the payoff; they demonstrate that, unlike most other storytelling these days, not everything needs to be explained.

The second, opened-up part of the movie utilizes modest, effective visual effects that probably won't win any Oscars, but once again show that visual effects are best as enhancements to a story, rather than as the main point.

With Freaks, the filmmakers manage to tap into two universal themes. As the title suggests, it's about people who don't quite feel they belong, which, at some point applies to almost everybody.

At the same time, it takes this feeling to a national level, making hate and ignorance official, and separating "us" from "them." The message is strong, but it's layered in nicely, and is, unfortunately, quite necessary.

Overall, the sly way the movie elevates itself from unexplained feelings of paranoia, to revealing the big picture, is wholly satisfying.

The movie likewise does not skimp on its sound design, music, or acting. Little Kolker gives an extraordinary performance, so disarmingly natural that it's easy to forget that she's acting.

Hirsch, building on the goodwill he earned in 2017's above-average horror movie The Autopsy of Jane Doe, is a great match for her, his frustration, exhaustion, and panic, all a result of his being a parent.

Dern, who, like Hirsch, is also in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood — as well as in other recent gems like The Peanut Butter Falcon and The Mustang — continues to establish himself as one of our most indispensable character actors, a cranky but terrifying little old man who is well past caring what anyone thinks.

Perhaps the movie's biggest flaw is that it shamelessly appropriates the title of Tod Browning's 1932 Freaks, presumably under the assumption that people have forgotten all about that seminal cult classic.

But, given how good the new film is, this transgression is easily forgiven, and Freaks could easily become a cult classic of its own (it's certainly worth more than one viewing). Hopefully the title will encourage, and won't chase away, viewers who might wish to experience something a little outside the mainstream.

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