Our school play was always an occasion for flamboyant little show offs to dress up and flounce around and ours was never different although eyebrows were raised when our school’s version of ‘Dreamgirls’, produced by our rather liberal drama teacher Mr Crisp, had a radical overhaul with him insisting that 14 year old boys only were cast in the lead roles and dressed them in outfits more commonly associated with Thai Lady boy and then went on to include a hitherto unknown and frankly made up scene involving ping pong balls and an industrial size quantity of swarfiga. It wasn’t long after this particular freak show that Mr Crisp left the school and is currently helping police with their enquiries. Here, the freak show in Freak Show is Billy Bloom played by Alex Lawther.
From the moment we meet him gazing at himself in a mirror deciding on how to do his make-up we know Billy is no ordinary school kid. And so it proves as we flashback to his earlier years where an indulgent mother (Bette Midler) worships her son and actively encourages his dressing up. It’s the cause of much arguing between his mother and straight laced father who separate and he finds himself forced to leave his adored mother (called ‘muv’) to live with his father in his huge mansion with the housekeeper, a straight talking Celia Weston. Billy retreats ever more into his world of fantasy dress up ignoring the housekeeper’s advice to dress more conservatively for his first day at a new high school. However Billy’s idea of conservative is dressing like the bastard love child of Marilyn Mansun at an Adam and the Ants fan convention and his ostentatious over familiarity with the other students leads to his immediately being ostracised.
For the make-up and wardrobe department Freak Show is a gift of a film because what Alex wears throughout is no dissimilar from what you might expect if he’d appeared on ‘Queer eye for the straight guy’. But as everyone knows High School is about conforming and fitting in and not drawing attention to yourself during the turbulence of adolescence. Alex is the exact opposite and though he does make friends, a super fan bizarrely named Blah Blah Blah (Anne Sophia Robb)and oddly a much liked hetero boy called Flip (Ian Nelson) who everyone likes, Alex does inevitably find himself the victim of a near fatal shoeing from the high school jocks. Hardly surprising when he has attended school in a mini skirted wedding dress, white pan stick face and dollops of glittery eye make up which looks like the world’s campest seagull has shat on him.
Freak Show based on the book by James St James is a look at the emerging sexuality of those awkward teen years with Alex’s appearance immediately being interpreted as him being gay. It’s that assumption which the other characters justify in treating Billy in their own stereotypical way of dealing with someone they assume to be gay. So the three girl clan of bullies ask him for fashion tips which he takes the opportunity to brilliantly tear them apart, then there’s the homophobic jocks, the nice guy where it appears their friendship could be the beginning of something more and the loner with a deep seated resentment of Alex which you know is a mask for something deeper.
It’s when Alex decides to challenge for the title of beauty queen that it all comes to a head with him and the other contender for the homecoming queen title giving speeches to the school to gain their vote. Hers is openly hateful towards anyone that’s not straight whereas Alex is a plea for understanding and it’s that theme which runs throughout the whole film. Freak Show is an ode to tolerance and individuality. Alex Lawther, though here he looks like the younger brother of Pennywise from ‘It’, he is great as Billy and is a ideal role for an actor to show their versatility. Directed with verve by debut director Trudie Styler, Freak Show is an assured debut with a great indie soundtrack, an acting debut from John McEnroe in full superbrat mode as a gym teacher and even a montage to seventies one hit wonder camp Parisian punk Plastic Bertrand’s Ca Plane Pour Moi.
Billy is not a freak but he is unique and the film is a joyful embrace of diversity.
Here’s the Freak Show trailer…….