In “Freaks”, seven-year-old Chloe’s world is very small. She lives alone in a large, dilapidated house with her father (Emile Hirsch), where she spends her days memorizing details of another girl’s life and sneaking glimpses of the outside world through thick curtains and hastily-covered windows. She’s not allowed to go outside, her father reminds her sternly, because she’s not good enough at pretending to be normal to keep her safe. There are bad people outside who want to hurt her, and her father is the only one who can protect her. This is Chloe’s world, and she’s just beginning to question its limits.
Even at seven years old, Chloe can tell that there’s something different about the way she has grown up; while other kids are free to play outside, she has never left her own home and seems as though she’s being trained for a life of hiding. But it isn’t just her upbringing that makes Chloe so peculiar. Characters appear and disappear from her bedroom at random — at one point a troupe of other neighborhood girls walk through her bedroom door and taunt her, and at another point there’s a strange, disturbing image of a screaming woman. Are these real, or merely the manifestations of a lonely, bored child’s overactive imagination?
“Freaks” is in no rush to explain Chloe’s eccentricities and abilities, or to reveal the identity of the mysterious “bad guys” who her father claims will hurt her. It’s satisfied instead with exploring this painstakingly built world bit by bit, operating at Chloe’s pace as she becomes aware of and intrigued by a larger society outside her front door. In the end, it’s the lure of an ice cream truck, a siren call twinkling menacingly through the neighborhood, that leads her to disobey her father and venture outside for the first time.
Only gradually do we learn exactly what kind of science fiction story this is. As abilities are revealed and a paranoid, authoritarian society is established, we can see “Freaks” for what it is: in essence, an origin story for a superhero or, perhaps more likely, a particularly sympathetic supervillain.
There are certainly those who would charge “Freaks” with being derivative. After all, the narrative of the misunderstood and persecuted mutant (freak or “abnormal”, in this film) is a well-trod territory. The “X-Men” universe alone has given audiences an entire canon full of such characters. But there’s something endearing about how this narrative unfolds, the focus on a little girl’s exploration of her rapidly expanding world, that ground “Freaks” and makes it more than just another “X-Men” knock-off.
Despite the fact that the majority takes place within the walls of Chloe’s home, there’s a richly-developed external society that feels immediately familiar. The fear of the Other, for instance, is another element that has been portrayed extensively in genre films, but the cold, institutionalized, even state-sanctioned suppression of those who are different in “Freaks” should serve as a chillingly relevant reminder of the horrors of a society that has lost its soul.
Lexy Kolker‘s performance as Chloe is confident and nuanced — she comes across as much more than just another generic kid with powers we’ve seen a hundred times before. She has impressive chemistry with co-stars Emile Hirsch and Bruce Dern, who are equally committed to the establishment of deep bonds between the characters. We feel so keenly the weight of the burdens they’re asked to carry, and the limited screen-time the two men have together is fraught with unspoken history.
“Freaks” hardly breaks new ground from a narrative perspective, but it’s told in such a thoughtful, tightly-focused way that it feels entirely new. It’s a smart, compact science fiction piece that doesn’t redefine the genre, but instead chooses to re-discover through the eyes of a child a story with which we’re already familiar.