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D: Trudie Styler / 91m

Cast: Alex Lawther, Abigail Breslin, AnnaSophia Robb, Ian Nelson, Larry Pine, Bette Midler, Celia Weston, Willa Fitzgerald, Charlotte Ubben, Laverne Cox, Christopher Dylan White, Michael Park, Mickey Sumner, John McEnroe, Eddie Schweighardt

What if you didn’t fit in anywhere, and most days went out of your way not to fit in? And what if you were bullied by your fellow high schoolers, ignored by your father, missed your absentee mother terribly, and expressed your inner feelings by dressing up in outrageous yet clearly female outfits… and the source of all this was because you’re a boy? How would all that make you feel? And what would you do to combat the unwanted attention you’re getting from the other students? Well, in the feature debut of director Trudie Styler, the answer new kid Billy Bloom (Lawther) opts for is to be bolder and more outrageous, and to treat the majority of the other kids with disdain. But for all his outward self-confidence, Billy is still the outsider who wants to be accepted for who he is. The trouble is he’s flamboyant, shamelessly narcissistic, and completely uninterested in fitting in unless it’s on his own terms. But when he’s viciously beaten up by members of the school football team, things begin to edge his way, and a wider acceptance makes itself felt, an acceptance that is put to the test when Billy decides to run for Homecoming Queen…

Anyone coming to Freak Show might find themselves wondering if its origins lay between the pages of a Young Adult novel, and those assumptions would be right. Adapted from the novel of the same name by self-styled celebutante James St. James, Freak Show is a movie predicated to the idea of individuality above all else, and being true to yourself, even if you’re not sure just who you are yet. It’s an ode to persevering against the odds, but told in an uneven and often uncertain way thanks to a screenplay by Patrick J.Clifton and Beth Rigazio that can’t decide if Billy should fully integrate into high school life or remain a consenting outsider. Outside of school, Billy lives with his father (Pine) who doesn’t understand him, and he dreams of the day his mother (Midler) will come to rescue him from the terrible life he really doesn’t lead. Within school, Billy makes friends with Blah Blah Blah (Robb), who thinks he’s amazing, and football star Flip (Nelson) who has an artistic side he doesn’t feel he can express except when he’s around Billy.

The relationship that develops between Billy and Flip occupies a lot of the movie’s running time, and it spends a lot of that time not going where you might expect it to (but then it does). It’s not always handled well, and there’s a frankly embarrassing moment between Flip and Billy’s mother that has all the dramatic subtlety of a police baton strike to the lower right thigh (sorry, wrong movie). Billy’s decision to run for Homecoming Queen includes the movie’s heartfelt plea for tolerance, and though it’s beautifully expressed by Lawther, the movie tries to be ironic immediately after – and doesn’t even come close. With the screenplay also unable to pin down its approach to gender politics, it’s left to Lawther and the make up, costume and wardrobe departments to provide a series of outfits that best express Billy’s glamour obsessed personality, and in doing so to gloss over the movie’s various shortcomings, not the least of which is Breslin’s God-bothering rival for the Homecoming Queen tiara, Lynette. It is Lawther’s movie though, the young actor giving a relaxed, confident, and sincere performance that keeps Billy sympathetic throughout, even when it’s hard to feel entirely sorry for him.

Rating: 6/10 – bolstered by a terrific performance from Lawther, but hampered at the same time by so many high school movie clichés it’s like shooting fish in a barrel, Freak Show is at least funny when it’s trying to be, but tiresome when it’s trying to be serious; with its mixed messages centering around individuality and integration, the movie is only half as effective as it should be, and too often opts for warm and fuzzy when it should be direct and uncomfortable.