“You need to lie to be normal.” That’s what Chloe (Lexy Kolker) is told by her father (Emile Hirsch). Except there’s nothing normal about their current home life. She’s forbidden to ever go outside, as he blocks off the outside world with sheets on every window. She’s told to tell strangers her name is Eleanor, and she sleeps on a filthy mattress, sans bed frame, in the middle of the floor. It’s really a terrible life, a fact that Lexi is unaware of due to a lack of life experience. But if this is considered salvation to her dad, then how horrible are the things outside that he’s “protecting” her from?
To Chloe, the only glimpses of the outside world she sees are the news reports that refer to something terrible that has happened, as well as the ice cream truck that is ALWAYS outside. Replete with Mr. Snowcone (Bruce Dern), the creepiest ice cream man this side of Clint Howard (including his creepy ass bubble machine). Ice cream is just one of the few simple desires Chloe has, with the biggest being the ability to see the mother her father is uncomfortable talking about.
Directors Adam Stein and Zach Lipovsky craft a sleepy, dreamlike aesthetic that allows you to question the logic of what we’re seeing and the sanity of Chloe and her father. As the film ventures into events that appear increasingly surreal, the first thought is whether Chloe has an out sized imagination, is having hallucinations, or is something more sensational at play? It is not often so much is put on the shoulders of a child actor, but Kolker is excellently suited for the challenges and responsibilities this role dictates.
Her earnest performance makes you believe and empathize with her in moments of joy, sadness, rage, and episodes of naiveté. At first, we don’t understand what is going on or why the characters around her behave so strangely. It’s as if everyone is in on something that Chloe doesn’t even realize she should be suspicious of, and it is Kolker who anchors the film as her performance must be a true expression of her thoughts amid what is possibly a web of lies.
It is difficult to discuss the film in any great detail without spoiling the plot, but what can be stated is that Freaks is an engrossing genre film that is equal parts family drama as it is an action-packed Twilight Zone episode. Mysteries are tricky because not everyone will be satisfied with the answers, but where Freaks succeeds is in gripping the audience with a narrative that demands closure long after most of the questions have been solved.
The result is a thrilling, well-crafted drama that arrives as one of the best surprises of the year. Destined to be unseen, it is likely Freaks will become something of a cult classic someday. Which may be appropriate – the characters in the film are hidden from the outside world for various reasons; eventually, Chloe must decide if that’s the life she wants to continue to live.
Taken at face value, it is easy to rationalize that there’s little harm in lying to children if it means that those lies protect them. But it’s also concerning that the world may be so unsafe and unsavory that we craft alternate realities for a child to mentally inhabit so that we increase the odds of them making choices we approve of. Hiding from the outside world may be a necessary protection, but it will gradually come at a cost and eventually you have to take off the training wheels and make the transition. Chloe’s dilemma involves her opportunity to be normal coming at the cost of her sense of power and control. Let them call you a freak, just don’t let them turn you into a coward.