Whereas high school is, for most, a miserable labyrinth of social pressures and abject cruelty, it's much worse for young Billy Bloom in Freak Show from director Trudie Styler (based on the novel by James St. James). Billy (Alex Lawther) is queer and theatrical, a firm believer in pageantry and over-the-top outfits spurred by his melodramatic and alcoholic mother (Bette Midler as an uncharacteristic waste of space) who sends him to live with his estranged father in such-and-such conservative small town, the South, USA.
Billy fears nothing, though he probably should—from the dumb-dumb jocks and bible-thumping cheerleader types (led by a barely-there Abigail Breslin) to homophobic teachers and closeted gay teens who handle their confusion through violence and loud, public proclamations of "Faggot!" But through it all, our young hero remains undeterred, even deciding to run for Homecoming Queen—and it is glorious. Not only do we find Billy a sympathetic figure stuck between a set of parents who seemingly couldn't be more indifferent and the archaic South, but he never once falters in his sense of self, even as he's ridiculed and bullied and beaten within an inch of his life.
Lawther absolutely becomes Billy Bloom, exuding kindness and fearlessness in the face of constant hatred and taking a stand for the "shadow people," so-called freaks from his school who fight daily just to remain unnoticed by the villainous popular set. Billy does have allies, however, from the young woman whose name no one seems to know (AnnaSophia Robb) to the impossibly handsome football hero Flip (Ian Nelson), who maybe doesn't like the usual guy stuff as much as the student body wishes he would. Director Styler nails the authenticity here, both in the motivations and actions of teens to the burdens they carry under familial, academic and sexual pressures.
But this is Lawther's show, and he does not disappoint. Freak Show should, in fact, become required viewing; for adolescents who feel lost and bullies who act from a place of pain, or even just parents who don't quite realize what they might be doing to their children. There's a realism in Freak Show that brilliantly encapsulates the tsunami of disappointments faced by youths, but still, it holds on tight to that one thing that shines brightest and helps us operate day by day: hope. Oh, and Laverne Cox is in it, so … score.
-Abigail Breslin just ain't good
Directed by Styler
With Lawther, Midler, Robb, Nelson and Cox
Jean Cocteau Cinema, NR, 95 min.