'Some Freaks': Fantasia Review

SOME FREAKS Still - Publicity - H 2016
Courtesy of Fantasia International Film Festival

SOME FREAKS Still - Publicity - H 2016

An empathetic look at adolescent agony that isn't as miserable as it may sound on paper.

Ian MacAllister McDonald's relationship drama centers on three friends struggling with the transition from high school to college.

An affecting debut for anyone who has dwelled on the far outskirts of adolescent social life, Ian MacAllister McDonald's Some Freaks captures high school/college agony without transmuting it into thank-God-we-survived-it nostalgia. Starring Thomas Mann (lead in the tragically underseen Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) and charismatic relative newcomer Lily Mae Harrington, the picture centers on misfits struggling to understand whether their "flaws" are things to overcome or essential to their identities. Neil LaBute's appearance as an exec-producer will tell prospective viewers something about the film's willingness to grapple with cruelty in intimate settings. But McDonald never delights in cruelty the way LaBute can, and the empathy he brings to the material makes Some Freaks one of the strongest films of its kind in ages. Its frustratingly limited theatrical release (opening day finds it in L.A. and several other cities, but not New York) suggests distributor Good Deed Entertainment will have a hard time drumming up theatrical attention, but with any luck, the film will have legs on video.

Mann plays Matt, a shy and scrawny kid who wears a patch over an empty eye socket. His best friend Elmo (Ely Henry) is both dorkier and more, in this context, afflicted: He's gay, but so anxious about it that he sometimes resorts to acting like a homophobe in public.

Harrington is Jill, a very overweight teen who plays up her pariah status with an army jacket and outré hairstyle. Thrown together as dissection partners in biology class, Jill and Matt experience a flicker of chemistry, but it takes time for the latter to be comfortable around a fat girl. Such is the horror of contagion, that one sort of outcast fears being tainted by association with another sort. But soon (thanks largely to Jill's lack of shame about her body) they are a couple, whose happiness is interrupted when she leaves town for college. Matt can't afford to go visit her for six months.

And that's when things get truly sad. Reinventing herself on campus, Jill has lost a good deal of weight and pursued a more conventionally pretty style; she has kept the new look a surprise for Matt. But instead of reacting like a teen-melodrama hero who has stumbled into his happily-ever-after, Matt responds with panic. Clearly, he fears that he won't be able to hold on to Jill if she's attractive to other men. His response is shocking and heartbreaking. And if some viewers find it hard to believe (here and elsewhere, the action may seem too extreme to some), they may not have witnessed what self-loathing can make people do.

The film's last act observes as all three protagonists make ill-considered attempts to find acceptance from more popular peers — some of whom, unbeknownst to them, harbor their own secret discontent and self-doubt. Wisely, McDonald is generous with screen time for Jill, whose predicament is the most complicated, but whose character might have gotten short shrift from other male directors. Watching the ways these kids compromise and contort in hopes of being loved can be a wrenching experience, especially with three strands of misery edited together in parallel. The writer/director walks a fine line, with scenarios that lend themselves toward exploitation. But he always pulls back, hoping that if his characters just survive long enough, things will get better for them.

Production company: Half Jack Productions
Distributor: Good Deed Entertainment
Cast: Thomas Mann, Lily Mae Harrington, Ely Henry, Marin Ireland, Lachlan Buchanan
Director-screenwriter: Ian MacAllister McDonald
Producers: Mia Chang, Tim Harms, Lovell Holder, Ryan Smith
Executive producers: Monica Aguirre Diez Barroso, Neil LaBute, Alan Pao, Yingzhi Peng, Clark Peterson
Director of photography: Joseph Zizzo
Production designers: Jonathan DelPonte, Jennifer Gerbino
Costume designer: Melanie Hardy
Editor: Jonathan Melin
Composer: Walter Sickert
Casting directors: Nancy Nayor, Lindsey Weissmueller
Venue: Fantasia Film Festival

96 minutes