'Freaks': Film Review | TIFF 2018

More than meets the eye.

Zach Lipovsky and Adam B. Stein’s sci-fi thriller starring Emile Hirsch and Bruce Dern premiered in Toronto’s Discovery program.

Sci-fi action overlays dystopian drama in Freaks, Zach Lipovsky and Adam B. Stein’s cleverly structured genre hybrid set in a near-future America divided by fear and manipulative government agendas. If that description sounds remarkably contemporary, that’s because the filmmakers are seeking to deliver more than just action-driven entertainment.

Collaborators Lipovsky and Stein, who recently wrapped the action comedy Kim Possible for the Disney Channel, are already a known quantity and Freaks should noticeably boost their profiles as talented and versatile filmmakers. Compared to many genre outings, this may be fairly low-key stuff, but the contributions of Emile Hirsch and Bruce Dern assure that specialized outlets will take notice.

The film’s initial challenge involves parlaying a sometimes overly cryptic first act into a satisfying midsection that gradually begins coalescing the plot around the central characters. For instance, the filmmakers take a leisurely approach to revealing a major plot point about a recent, unexplained global catastrophe that’s caused a large minority of humans to develop alarming mutations. Seen as a threat by U.S. government agencies, these “Abnormals” are relentlessly tracked down by teams of federal agents wielding military-grade firepower.

This widespread wave of persecution passes completely unnoticed by 7-year-old Chloe (Lexy Kolker), who rarely leaves her ramshackle suburban home unless it’s under the watchful eye of her Dad (Hirsch), but he’s too paranoid to venture much further than the grocery store for occasional supplies. Instead, he trains his daughter to adopt an assumed identity if she’s ever separated from him, or to hide in a well-provisioned panic room if he should not return from one of his infrequent forays.

But something clearly isn’t right herein, and it’s not just the weird family dynamic that could easily represent the victimization of a child by a paranoid schizophrenic, or perhaps something else entirely. As cinematographer Stirling Bancroft’s stealthy camera prowls through the claustrophobic confines of the house, images pulse with a strange energy, as if glimpsed from underwater. Alone in her bedroom, Chloe experiences terrifying visions of a weeping woman she calls “the ghost,” but perhaps it’s all in her vividly bright imagination. And all the while, Dad never ceases his ranting, except to tend to his eyes when they begin bleeding again.

Gradually these visual clues will be deciphered, but initially they lend an otherworldly aura to an already unusual setting. It’s only the sudden appearance of Mr. Snowcone (Dern), the neighborhood ice cream vendor, that disrupts this bizarre household dynamic. Tempting Chloe into his truck with a scoop of chocolate, he explains that he wants to take her to see her mother Mary (Amanda Crew), even though Dad had always told her that she’d gone to heaven years before. When Chloe gets home, Dad is very angry and aggressively confronts Mr. Snowcone. Turns out Dad was right: Bad people really do want to hurt them and even now, they could be closing in.

Lipovsky and Stein, who first began collaborating more than a decade ago during their stint on Fox’s filmmaking reality show On the Lot, share writing and directing credits, but the movie never feels bifurcated. Narratively and visually it’s all of a well-integrated piece, which is an accomplishment in itself considering the film’s obvious technical demands.

Although the limited locations and infrequent exteriors suggest a modest budget, the filmmakers strategically prioritize the robust sound design and intensely rendered special effects. In particular, a third-act scene tying together the mystery of Chloe’s family history and the relentless determination of her pursuers rivals many a big-budget blockbuster for action pyrotechnics. Although cleverly structured, the script is sometimes rather too upfront about its thematic focus on diversity, discrimination and persecution, gradually disclosing an agenda-driven perspective that sometimes threatens to overwhelm the intricate plotting.

With such a tight-knit ensemble, casting was clearly a key consideration, no more so than filling the critical role of Chloe. With several features already among her credits, as well as a supporting role on USA Network’s Shooter, Kolker overdelivers as the feisty little girl determined to protect her family.

Her semi-improvised performance couldn’t be any more authentic and she’s well matched with Hirsch, drawing on his own parental experience, as her conflicted and overprotective father. The ever-versatile Dern delivers a slyly subversive turn as Mr. Snowcone, whose hidden agenda involves much more than frozen treats.

Although in the early going the convoluted plot sometimes struggles to maintain interest, Stein and Lipovsky have such a clear vision that they keep developments confidently on track until subsequent revelations engage in full-throttle action mode, leading to a climax suggesting they likely have future plans for these characters.

Production companies: Wise Daughter Films, My Way Productions, Storyboard Capital Group, Amazing Incorporated
Cast: Emile Hirsch, Bruce Dern, Grace Park, Amanda Crew, Lexy Kolker
Directors-writers:  Zach Lipovsky, Adam B. Stein
Producers: Adam Stein, Zach Lipovsky, Jordan Barber, Mitchell Waxman
Executive producers: M. Alan Stein, Rick Alyea, Philip Kim, Elisabeth Costa de Beauregard
Director of photography: Stirling Bancroft
Production designer: Moe Curtin
Costume designer:  Mia Fiddis
Editor: Sabrina Pitre
Music: Timothy Michael Wynn
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Discovery)
Sales: CAA/Gersh

104 minutes