‘Freak Show’ tackles cliché with ‘trans-visionary’ grace

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Editor’s Note: The arts and entertainment department is adjusting its grading scale from a letter-grade system to a numeric score out of 5. This change is intended to increase accuracy and consistency between reviews.

Director Trudie Styler described “Freak Show” as a “story of resistance” — and that’s right on the mark. Adapted from the James St. James novel of the same name, the film follows queer teen Billy Bloom (Alex Lawther of “The Imitation Game” fame). Lawther’s performance is spell-binding and genuine — Billy is radiant in extravagant costumes and possesses unapologetic confidence to boot.

The film is fast-paced, moving quickly from Billy’s upbringing with his glamorous mother (Bette Midler) to moving in with his estranged father (Larry Pine), who lives in a conservative town that is not only incompatible with Billy’s lifestyle, but also actively rejects him. After facing abjection and violence in his daily life, Billy decides to join the race for homecoming queen against an Ivanka-Trump-esque Lynette (Abigail Breslin). Lynette is laughably hateable — but her comical ignorance does not diminish the threat she and other students pose to queer safety and equality. She faces off against Laverne Cox, portraying a television journalist, who (of course) is having none of Breslin’s queerphobia.

The film overthrows the tropes of typical high school films: gym class snafus, cliques of outcasts and athletes and ignorant bullies. We see characters who are sympathetic but too fearful of being socially ostracized by association to stand up for Billy (or even elect him homecoming queen). The narrative interpellates the social caste system of typical high school films in order to subvert the generic tropes by giving us characters that refuse that system altogether: namely Billy and the “shadow people” — kids at the social margins of their conservative private high school.

“Freak Show” is an uplifting story, with clearly intentional set and costume design that reflect queer pride as much as the script does. The film even mirrors some scenes from historically queer cinema, including “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

Author St. James and director Styler were both present at the film’s North American debut in the historic Castro Theatre. St. James noted that Billy’s experiences — particularly those from the first half of the film — were based on his own life in high school. He celebrated Lawther’s performance and noted that Billy’s pursuit of the homecoming queen title was a projection of who St. James wishes he could be.

Billy publicly declares himself a “trans-visionary” and a “gender obliviator” as he struts in glitter-laden gowns and makeup done to perfection. At one point in the film, Billy’s friend Flip (Ian Nelson) suggests that he tone down his femininity as a means of staying safe, going stealth. The film does well to recognize from the beginning that this can be a measure of safety for some folks and a harmful one for others. Billy’s persistent resistance, as well as his unending creativity, make him a visionary — a heroic icon that will be both influential and memorable.

Sophie-Marie Prime covers television. Contact her at [email protected].