Freak Show (3 stars)

Freak Show

Alex Lawther gives a big and beautiful performance in Trudie Styler's debut drama

At one point in Trudie Styler's narrative feature debut – an adaptation of the teen novel by former New York club scene fixture James St James – the main character Billy Bloom appears dressed as a sparkling mermaid. The costumes Bloom wears (there are many!) are designed by Colleen Atwood and Sarah Laux and inspired by fantasy or pop culture icons like Boy George, while the cheeky and eye-catching designs nicely reflect a colourful persona.

Billy (Alex Lawther) has been shipped out from his exciting life in Connecticut to Kentucky to live with his father. It's a boring ordeal, with his refusal to dial down his flamboyant dress sense gaining the attention of high school bullies. He misses his mother Muv (a perfectly cast Bette Midler as a booze-hound), who has seemingly abandoned him, and starts crushing hard on the star player in the football team, Flip (Ian Nelson), who he strikes up a sweet friendship with. Billy decides to run for homecoming queen, partly to spite mean girl Lynette (Abigail Breslin, doing bitchy with a Southern accent) and partly to stand up for his fellow misfits.

Bloom's uninhibited behaviour is infectious, as Lawther delivers a big and irresistibly beautiful performance. He nails the hilarious irreverence and defiance of his character, but also draws out the vulnerability of a teen who is relentlessly bullied. However, his star turn somewhat outshines a narrative that doesn't share the same outrageous confidence.

Screenwriters Patrick J Clifton and Beth Rigazio rely too closely on John Hughes's teen film template, mixing it with the spirit of classic LGBT films; sadly, it doesn't quite match the mischievous tone or satirical bite of John Waters and is not as daring as the work of Gregg Araki or John Cameron Mitchell. The eclectic soundtrack works in its favour and should appeal to a young audience, some of whom may treasure its sincere message about embracing your individuality.

Selected release from Fri 22 Jun.

Freak Show

  • 3 stars
  • 2017
  • US
  • 1h 35min
  • 12A
  • Directed by: Trudie Styler
  • Cast: Alex Lawther, Ian Nelson, Abigail Breslin, AnnaSophia Robb, Laverne Cox
  • UK release: 22 June 2018

Teenage Billy (Lawther) is shipped to live with his father in Kentucky, where his flamboyant dress sense gets him bullied while he crushes hard on the star football player (Nelson). Styler’s narrative feature debut features an irrestistible performance from Lawther, but it doesn’t quite have enough bite or daring; still…