“Freak Show” is a sentimental satire of the “gay boy makes good at his new school” variety, a campy, cliche-ridden calypso not through “coming out,” but rather the “deal with it” part of that rite of passage.
Narrated, ad nauseum, by our stereotypically flamboyant, narcissist pronoun-neutral hero, it just goes to show what a mamma’s boy with fashion sense and an unlimited wardrobe can do to a private school where tolerance begins and ends in the African Americans they allow in to play for their football team.
Yes, Billy Bloom (Alex Lawther) “isn’t in Connecticut any more,” not in the boozy comforting company of his mother Muv (Bette Midler), who has left him in the care of his rich father in suburban New Orleans. “You’re in a Red State, now,” warns housekeeper/chauffeur Florence (Celia Weston, in rare form). He’d better lose the Boy George/Marilyn tributes and try to fit in.
Instead, “the ride that I call ‘My Life'” is a veritable Sherman’s March through Ulysses S. Grant Academy, as much as out-and-proud affront to the simple, happy natives as the idea of a school named for the Yankee general would be in Tulane territory.
Billy isn’t bending. He dons a fencing uniform and helmet to fend off the spitballs, and a Bride of Death dress to the near-fatal beating we know is coming.
If it wasn’t for Billy’s ready wit, the first straight “sidekick” (AnnaSophia Robb) who sidles up to him and the protection and friendship of “The Compassionate Jock (Ian Nelson) who is secretly into Jackson Pollock and Oscar Wilde, our Billy would never Bloom.
I didn’t take an instant dislike to “Freak Show.” It earned my disdain, the longer it carried on, through the romping “just friends” montage with quarterback Flip (Nelson) set to “a Plane Pour Moi,” the Muv flashbacks where Billy’s mother lectures him that when life kicks him, “You kick HIGHER,” the endless Oscar Wilde quotes and Billy’s assertion that “I didn’t choose to be fabulous, fabulous chose me!”
It’s not so much an assertion of “free to be me” as insufferable, where “edgy” is casting, oh, John McEnroe as the raging athletic coach or transgender icon Laverne Cox (“Orange is the New Black”) as the local TV reporter mean girl homecoming queen wannabe and raging homophobe Lynette (Abigail Breslin) vents to about Billy.
Actress turned first-time feature director Trudie Styler, who took over the gig at the last second, gets the first 45 minutes to dance by, and turns the last 45 into a slog, with no trite situation from an earlier teen or teen and gay dramedy left unrecycled, no costume change outrageous enough to truly outrage.
It’s not terrible, just irritating. “Freak Show” is too busy flying the white flag, surrendering to the obvious, to ever let its freak flag fly.
MPAA Rating: violence, sexuality, alcohol abuse
Cast: Alex Lawther, Abigail Breslin, AnnaSophia Robb, Ian Nelson, Celia Weston, Richard Pine and Bette Midler
Credits: Directed by Trudie Styler, script by Patrick Clifton and Beth Rigazio, based on the book by James St. James. An IFC release.
Running time: 1:31