A fleeting reference to The Crucible sums up the cultural moment Trudie Styler captures in her bitterly funny and warmly empathetic first feature, an adaptation of James St. James’s young adult novel. Lynette (Abigail Breslin), the WASP queen bee in an affluent and conservative high school, so embraces her role as a puritanical enforcer that she imbues it with righteous fury. Never mind that Arthur Miller rendered members of the witch hunt mob as fearful and ignorant conformists, squelching dissent with violence.
A lot has changed, for better and worse, since St. James’s Freak Show was published in 2007, but Billy Bloom (Alex Lawther), an outsider who challenges gender norms, is still targeted for relentless bullying. Screenwriters Patrick J. Clifton and Beth Rigazio use Billy’s voiceover narration as a running commentary of his thought process, by turns defiant and perplexed. The trouble starts right away, on the first day of school, when he arrives dressed like Adam Ant’s dandy highwayman. The more scorn Billy receives, the more outlandish his drag becomes, until his torment escalates from spitballs to a life-threatening beating.
Styler’s strengths are revealed in the aftermath: She knows Billy’s problems won’t be fixed by official apologies or even by challenging Lynette for homecoming queen. Focusing on Billy’s vulnerability as much as his flamboyance (Lawther handles both with aplomb), she charts his hard-won maturation with sobering insights into his warring parents and fellow students cowed into obedience. Styler swaths Billy in beauty (glorious costumes and majestic wealth) while encouraging him to embrace the imperfection inherent in friendship and love.
Review by Serena Donadoni
Released on January 12, 2018 by IFC Films
First published in The Village Voice, 2018.
Freak Show is streaming on Hulu