Directed by first-time feature helmers Zach Lipovsky and Adam Stein, “Freaks” is a film whose greatest virtues are inseparable from its limitations. Using a tiny handful of locations, a small cast (albeit one that includes Bruce Dern), and some judiciously applied digital effects, the two writer-directors manage to hit most of the marks of a big-budget sci-fi thriller with almost none of the usual resources, spinning a tight yarn whose structural cleverness makes it easy to ignore the deeply familiar story at its core. Bringing obliquely to mind the likes of “Monsters” and “Safety Not Guaranteed,” “Freaks” feels like a quintessential calling-card sort of low-budget indie, as though the filmmakers are angling for a shot at a studio project by showing how well they can tackle the form from outside in. Judging by their results here, they certainly deserve a look.
Although the narrative will eventually concern itself with government tyranny and all manner of supernatural mysteries, “Freaks” initially seems to have much more in common with a film like “Room” than anything from the worlds of YA or sci-fi. Set primarily inside a ramshackle house with thick curtains and decaying furniture, the film introduces us to Chloe (Lexy Kolker), a bright seven-year-old who has never left the premises. Everything we see, we see from Chloe’s perspective, which makes it all the more unsettling as we watch her invest total trust in her disheveled, jittery, wild-eyed father (Emile Hirsch), who runs her through constant security drills and warns of the terrible dangers that should befall her if she ever steps outside. “You gotta be a good hider,” he says, stockpiling weapons and stacks of cash in a safe, “otherwise the bad guys will find you.”
Yet there’s a lot more going on here than just extreme homeschooling. For one, Chloe has regular visions of a woman in her closet (Amanda Crew) whom she labels a “ghost.” She also appears to have an unusually vivid imaginary friendship with Harper (Ava Telek), the little girl across the street. One day, watching from a window as Harper lines up at an ice cream truck, Chloe makes a silent wish for a cone of her own – as if in a trance, Harper brings one straight to her front door, her terrified mother (Michele Harrison) in hot pursuit.
Despite her father’s best efforts, Chloe is eventually lured outside by the owner of the ice cream truck, who calls himself Mr. Snowcone (Dern). After a deeply creepy back-and-forth in which Mr. Snowcone claims to be her grandfather and tells tales about her mother – whom Chloe believes is dead – imprisoned on a distant mountain, Chloe gets into his truck, and takes her first ever trip into town. From here, the film takes a turn about which the less said the better, as watching the way the story unfolds is considerably more interesting than the story itself.
Lipovsky and Stein have a great time luring audiences in with slow drips of necessary context, giving us fleeting glimpses of TV news chyrons reading “Drone Strikes in Seattle” and “Remembering Dallas” as Chloe goes about her business in the house. Their sense of pacing is spot-on, and they exhibit a knack for calculated misdirection, with Timothy Wynn’s score helping them pull off some very effective head-fakes. (While their attempts to bring in some political subtext are a bit on-the-nose, at least there’s more on their minds than the mechanics of the story.)
The only problem is that it’s easier to be impressed by the ingenuity of the staging and the architecture of the screenplay than it is to stay invested in the characters. Of course, none of that is the fault of the terrific young actress they’ve cast in the lead – appearing in every scene, relative newcomer Kolker carries the film effortlessly. Dern and Hirsch also do solid work as Chloe’s problematic parental figures, smoothing out some of the film’s knottier stretches of dialogue. And Grace Park brings a smart glimmer of decency to her otherwise antagonistic role as a social worker, of sorts.