A determinedly less sanitized version of the classic John Hughes high-school-misfits-seriocomedy template, “Some Freaks” finds three young Rhode Island outcasts bonding, only to find their very different problems and types of immaturity create conflict as well as kinship, particularly as the narrative carries on past graduation. Playwright Ian MacAllister-McDonald’s debut feature is a refreshingly grounded, unsentimental yet empathetic slice of D-list teenage life that goes a bit overboard in its final act, piling on humiliations in triplicate for its (by then) estranged protagonists. Still, the sum effect is easily strong enough to provide a career boost for all principal collaborators, with modest but decent prospects for niche sales in various formats.
Matt (Thomas Mann from “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”) has the hunted look of someone who expects the worst, and usually gets it. At school, his unexplained eyepatch gets him called “Cyclops.” Things aren’t much better at home, where he lives with a shrewish older sister (Marin Ireland) who’s raising an infant alone (badly, from the looks of it) and has zero patience for her little brother’s issues. Matt’s sole friend is the even more socially marginalized Elmo (Ely Henry), who’d probably be scorned in this conformist milieu as “that gay weirdo” anyway, but makes things worse with a non-existent verbal filter.
Things change when Elmo’s cousin moves temporarily into his family home, and into their shared school. Apparently shunted here after some trouble out West, Jill (Lily Mae Harrington) is a jaded, plus-sized tough girl whose brash demeanor can’t fully mask the insecurity borne from years of fat-baiting abuse. After an awkward start, she and Matt become inseparable, their new-BFF status quickly turning to first love. That’s not an especially happy development for Elmo, especially when they skip his “anti-prom party” to attend the formal event as a couple.
But a bigger problem arises when Jill’s parents abruptly require that she relocate again — to a better general situation, admittedly, but one that will necessarily exclude Matt, who’s hardly in a financial position to follow on his own. At this point, the narrative jumps forward six months, as the two meet again for the first time since that parting. What should be a blissful reunion goes sour, however, as one of them has undergone a considerable transformation in the interim. This “surprise,” though a positive one, is greeted by the other as a threat to the essential kinship they’d felt as fellow misfits.
It’s hard not to ponder the possible influence of executive producer Neil LaBute in a climax that intercuts between the three leads, now basically incommunicado, each using a party to risk self-flagellating confirmation of their worst self-doubts. We’ve gotten to know Jill and Matt well enough to understand where these masochistic impulses are coming from. But there hasn’t been enough character development for Elmo to render fully credible his disastrous advance on a cute-jock classmate (John Thorsen). Similarly, the motivations of Patrick (Lachlan Buchanan), a dreamboat who’s coincidentally gone from the same Rhode Island high school to Jill’s freshman-year college, are too poorly articulated for it to make sense that he’s a sincerely smitten nice guy who’d nonetheless invite her to a frat party where her humiliation is on the official agenda. While these bottom-hitting incidents work well enough in dramatic terms (and are somewhat balmed by a low-key coda), they also feel a bit too flashy, cruel, and contrived in comparison to the astute, non-melodramatic observation preceding.
Nonetheless, all the performances are very nicely turned in a movie that deliberately excludes any significant adult presence in order to immerse us fully in an adolescent world. (Though she’s got a kid of her own, Ireland’s big sis Georgia is a “grownup” in legal-age-only terms, with the temperament of a toy-throwing brat.) Mann does fine working with a deeper character than he had in “Earl,” let alone “Project X” and “The Preppie Connection.” The comparatively unknown Harrington is terrific as a type found in every public school, but rarely given more than a few background-color lines (if that) onscreen. The production actually shut down for six months so the actress could undergo her own reverse-“Raging Bull” physical transformation.
There’s initially a little too much hand-held-camera “immediacy,” but MacAllister-McDonald quickly finds his rhythm in an assured package that draws maximum authenticity from location shooting, as well as considerable texturing from both Walter Sickert’s original score and music supervisor Dan Wilcox’s flavorful various-artist tracks.