There are plenty of great films in recent years about finding yourself and staying true to who you are deep down. Freak Show is another one of these films, but it has a refreshingly optimistic feel to it that makes it stand out. I'm not sure how this film got lost in the mix - it first premiered at the Berlin Film Festival, but hasn't played at any other festivals in America yet. I caught it at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival and it's an entertaining, enjoyable, optimistic story about personal identity and fighting back against bullies (not with violence, but with pride and courage). Alex Lawther stars a young, gay high school student named Billy Bloom who dresses up lavishly every day (think: Lady Gaga) yet the film isn't so much about homosexuality as it is about being totally yourself, and finding a way to survive even if you don't fit in with everyone else.
Lawther's performance as Billy Bloom is the most essential part of the story and it really works wonders, as he embraces every last aspect of the character. It honestly doesn't even seem like a "performance" so much as a genuine expression of individuality and creativity. Bloom comes from a very wealthy family and when he joins a new school after moving in with his father, he gets bullied and beat up. He stands out as the only weird one in the school, and makes a few friends (AnnaSophia Robb and Ian Nelson) who help him to navigate the treacherous world of high school. Directed by Trudie Styler, based on the book by James St. James, the film is fairly lightweight and easy to watch, staying optimistic and pleasant when it easily could be more serious or depressing. This actually benefits the film because it makes it more enchanting overall.
As much as I enjoyed Freak Show, it's not perfect. The two biggest problems with this film are the way it skips over a few major issues. First, that he befriends a straight man (a football player) and says at one point that he doesn't need sex or anything physical. Sure, maybe in this moment that's true, but that won't last. And it would be nice to hear him admit that. Second, and much more of a concern, is the way it never really addresses the time when this friend tries to push him to only be himself when not at school. Eventually he rejects this and stays true to himself, but I don't think it's a good message to say that oh, maybe this guy is right, you should only "be yourself" when not in places where it's better to be "normal". The whole message of the film is to never ever stop being yourself, no matter what, and it seems weird that this was overlooked.
Aside from that, I am a big fan of this film and definitely recommend it - whenever it shows up at your local art house cinema. Especially for those who often feel like they don't fit in, or are weirdos, or don't have any desire to be "normal" in a relentless society that demands you be normal. There's an upbeat soundtrack of various songs that make it more exciting than draining, which compliment the story in just the right way. It's hard to describe this film properly, because even though the title (Freak Show) seems a bit off-putting, the film is anything but – it's a charming story about personal identity, full of extravagant costumes and moments that will make you laugh and smile. And above all, it's a joyous reminder that no matter how you feel, always stay true to yourself, always be yourself. Never let anyone tell you different or make you change.
Alex's Karlovy Vary 2017 Rating: 8 out of 10
Follow Alex on Twitter - @firstshowing