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Freak Show — Alex Lawther shines as queer teen in a much-needed comedy ★★★★

Jess Glass April 2, 2018
Billy Bloom played by Alex Lawther in Freak Show

Billy Bloom played by Alex Lawther in Freak Show. (BFI)

A film about a flamboyant teenager forced to transfer to an ultra-conservative high school might seem cliche but is a film we sorely need in 2018.

Freak Show follows the life of Billy Bloom (Alex Lawther) as he moves to an unidentified traditional ‘red state’.

The queer teen, who dresses like Boy George and regularly quotes Oscar Wilde, isn’t easily accepted into his new ultra-conservative high school.

After a spate of bullying from his peers, Billy decides to challenge the whole system and run for homecoming queen rather than muting his style and quick wit.

Related: BFI Flare: Alaska is a Drag — A bold exploration of masculinity ★★★

Based on the novel by famed club kid James St James, Trudie Styler‘s directorial debut is full of warmth and laughter, while also sending out a clear message to anyone who has ever felt different.

(BFI)

The performances in Freak Show are brilliant across the board. Lawther is incandescent in his portrayal of Billy, both with his humour and in the more sombre parts of the film.

There is a glaring absence of depth to Billy’s character at times. Billy initially appears self-obsessed, and while his external pizazz is enough to attract the wrath of the school bullies, there’s very little discussion of who Billy is as a person or his identity.

This may have been intentional. However, it only works if the audience relates to Billy as the outsider, otherwise Lawther’s beautiful portrayal seems lost.

Freak Show is a very funny film, but it’s not entirely superficial — there are several emotionally poignant moments that may justifiably bring a tear to your eye, much to Lawther’s credit.

(BFI)

As the film develops, the humour follows along and builds to a wonderfully entertaining and heartfelt finale.

There’s no absence of parental drama in the film, as Billy’s scatty and instinctively unlikeable mother ‘Muv’ (Bette Midler) shines in her role and is remarkable even with limited screen time.

Related: London LGBTQ+ Film Festival transforms the capital into the ‘best queer venue in the world’

The bulk of the other characters in the school are entertaining, although they do mostly fall into neat American high-school stereotypes and can seem one-dimensional in their bigotry at times.

Trudie Styler and James St James (Photo by Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for IFC Films)

Another strength of the film is that Freak Show does not shy away from sociopolitical commentary, making it a wonderful high school film for America under President Trump.

Although much of the film was written and shot prior to Trump’s inauguration, or indeed before many believed him a serious candidate — the film has now has additional resonance.

Billy’s arch-rival Lynette (Abigail Breslin) is the perfect caricature of the religious-right and her cry of “Make America Great Again” as she runs for Homecoming Queen will hit close to home for a lot of people.

Trudie Styler’s directorial debut sparkles in a saturated teen-comedy genre. It’s a film for the freak inside all of us.

More: bfi, BFI Flare, BFI Flare 2018, Film Review, Film Reviews, Freak Show, trudie styler

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