Christopher Machell Toronto

Toronto 2018: Freaks review

★★★☆☆

In a cinematic landscape saturated with superhero mega-blockbusters from Marvel, Fox and Warner Bros., writer-directors Zach Lipovsky and Adam Stein take their cue from the X-Men series’ themes of oppression to deliver Freaks – a small-scale, intriguing superhero indie with a killer hook.

One of the great, and largely overlooked failures of modern superhero movies is their uniform adherence to the action formula. Among the smashing, ‘splosions and sulking, where are the mid-budgeted psychological thrillers, the hard-boiled noirs, the lurid melodramas, the surreal horrors?

Enter Freaks, taking its cue from the suggested themes and narrative motifs of its bigger brethren, but carving its own, genre-bending path. While it may be a little better in concept than in execution, there’s enough energy, imagination and innovation here to satisfy any genre hound suffering fatigue from the endless wash, rinse, repeat cycle of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, et al.

Seven-year old Chloe (Lexy Kolker) and her father (Emile Hirsch) are confined to their house, hiding from some unseen external menace. Hirsch, uncannily channelling a Jack Black-esque look, is apparently training Chloe to appear ‘normal’ to the outside world (to what end we can only guess). These scenes have echoes both of Yorgos Lanthimos’ disturbing Dogtooth and the gripping 10 Cloverfield Lane, but they lack the narrative and psychological richness of either of those films. It’s not long before we learn whether Hirsch’s dad is either protector or abuser, but the answer is perhaps less satisfying than the question.

The second act introduces Bruce Dern’s Mr. Snowcone, bringing with him the film’s superheroic element. It’s here that Freaks hits its stride. We learn that Chloe and her dad live in a dystopian society where people with extraordinary powers have been labelled ‘freaks’, demonised in the media and eventually interned and exterminated in concentration camps. The politics are hardly subtle: the film serves as an obvious holocaust allegory as well as a timely commentary on the appalling recent treatment of refugees in the US, but the point is no less powerful for its directness.

Where the internal spaces of the first act feels more like the result of budgetary constraints than artistic conceit, the film’s second half fares better, showing its hand as a novel and compelling take on a well-worn formula. Lacking the spectacle of a superhero flick and the depth of a psychological thriller, in straddling multiple genres, Freaks is nevertheless successful at carving out its own little niche.

The Toronto International Film Festival 2018 takes place from 6-16 September.

Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell