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We’re only two months into 2019, but I can safely predict that Freaks is one of the best sci-fi movies you’ll see this year. Currently making the rounds on the festival circuit, it’s an original indie thriller starring Emile Hirsch, Battlestar Galactica’s Grace Park, and veteran character actor Bruce Dern. It’s also one of those movies where you should avoid spoilers at all costs, so bear with me for a very circumspect review.
DIRECTOR: Zach Lipovsky and Adam Stein
Beginning as a tense thriller about a father who locks his daughter away from the outside world, ‘Freaks’ evolves into an ambitious sci-fi story with plenty of twists.
Written and directed by Zach Lipovsky and Adam Stein (who met on Steven Spielberg’s filmmaking reality show On the Lot), Freaks begins as a familiar kind of suspense movie. Seven-year-old Chloe (Lexy Kolker) lives in seclusion with her father (Hirsch), locked inside a dilapidated house with paper over the windows. Warning her of deadly threats from unspecified bad guys outside, Dad forbids Chloe from ever leaving the house.
The obvious question here is whether he’s telling the truth. Is there a legitimate reason to keep Chloe locked up, or is he just an abusive parent? That’s already a solid premise for a psychological thriller, but as we learn more about Chloe’s life, Freaks evolves into a high-concept sci-fi story with more ambitious worldbuilding than you’d expect.
At a Q&A after my screening at Frightfest, Lipovsky said they were more inspired by films like Room, The Florida Project, and Beasts of the Southern Wild than they were by genre cinema. That makes sense because along with a fantastic performance from Kolker, the film embraces Chloe’s 7-year-old perspective, right down to her childish priorities. While adult audiences pick up on the grimness of Chloe’s life, she’s more concerned with finding a way to get ice cream from Mr. Snowcone (Dern) in his truck outside the house. Her worldview also allows for some laughs amid the darkness, as Chloe innocently misunderstands the reality of her surroundings.
To us, Chloe’s dad is a blatantly suspicious figure. His explanation for locking Chloe away is paper-thin: If the outside world is so dangerous, then why does he tell Chloe to move in with their neighbors if something happens to him? If they live in a horrifying dystopia, why is there something as banal as an ice cream truck outside the house? And why is Dad so obsessed with teaching Chloe to seem “normal” while preventing her from having a normal life? But to Chloe, this is the only life she’s ever known. And aside from his paranoia, Dad does seem like a loving parent. You’re caught between the obvious fact that he’s lying to his daughter and a growing suspicion that the danger (whatever it is) may actually be real.
Freaks waits to establish itself as a family drama before introducing its more elaborate worldbuilding, avoiding the common problem of over-explaining itself in the first act. Standing alongside films like Moon and Ex Machina, it’s an original story with more sophisticated ideas and emotional intelligence than most big-budget sci-fi.
Freaks is currently screening at festivals and comes out on general release later this year.
Gavia Baker-Whitelaw is a staff writer at the Daily Dot, covering geek culture and fandom. Specializing in sci-fi movies and superheroes, she also appears as a film and TV critic on BBC radio. Elsewhere, she co-hosts the pop culture podcast Overinvested. Follow her on Twitter: @Hello_Tailor