Adolescent Desires

Trudie Styler has long been working in the film industry as a producer. Among her credits are Jon Baird’s Filth and Duncan Jones’ Moon. But now she makes the transition to feature film director with Freak Show, an endearing tale with a strong message of acceptance of oneself and others. British actor Alex Lawther – who has already made distinct impressions in The Imitation Game, Black Mirror and The End of the F***ing World – plays Billy Bloom, a flamboyant gay adolescent with a love of lip-gloss and self-expression.

Moving from Darien, Connecticut (“the hometown of Chloë Sevigny,” he trills) to a conservative school in southern America, Billy’s attempts to impress his new schoolmates with his fashion daring immediately see him mocked and bullied. But it’s not all growing pains. There is one fangirl who thinks he’s fabulous. Played by AnnaSophia Robb, the running joke is that Billy never catches her name and never bothers to ask. He also receives unexpected attentions from football jock Flip Kelly (Ian Nelson), a sensitive soul who seems to impress everyone he meets, including Billy’s father (Larry Pine).

Adapted from the 2007 YA novel by James St. James, Freak Show has a real heart to it, thanks to the performance of Lawther, who commits fully to this idiosyncratic character who refuses to hide his true self. Styler takes delight in subverting the usual teen tropes, with Billy running for “homecoming queen” against Abigail Breslin’s Mean Girl. But there’s genuine emotion to the subplot involving his absent mother (Bette Midler), whom Billy idolises but gradually comes to realise she’s a raging alcoholic who only cares for the maintenance money his father pays her once a month.

Styler also carefully handles the conflicting emotions that teenagers feel, particularly when it comes to sexuality. This may not be on a par with John Hughes’ seminal teen movies from the 1980s, but you can certainly see young viewers identifying with the difficulties of adolescence on show here. Artistically, meanwhile, Styler surrounds herself with major behind-the-scenes talent, notably acclaimed cinematographer Dante Spinotti, whose work includes Last of the Mohicans and L.A. Confidential. The result is a classy coming-of-age tale that burrows into the heart.

James Mottram

Freak Show opens on 22 June. For more details, click here.

1. Freak Show. Credit: Courtesy of Berlin Film Festival