Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"On a whole different level from most films of its ilk."

Some kids might think of Chloë (Lexy Kolker)a lucky. Sure, she's living in a single-parent family, but her dad (Emile Hirsch) loves her to bits and gives her lots of attention. She doesn't have to go to school and she gets lots of time to play. The trouble is, she's mostly playing by herself. Her dad keeps the front door heavily bolted and she's not allowed to go outside under any circumstances - unless one day, after heading out to get supplies, he fails to return.

What's beyond that door? Chloë longs to know. She tries to be good. She memorises all the things he tells her to, like the false name and address she's supposed to give to strangers if they're ever separated. She tries not to get upset and wake him with her screams when she sees ghosts in her closet. But every now and then she can't resist peeling back a bit of the paper that covers her bedroom window to take a peek at the world outside. It looks bright and colourful and alluring. Most tempting of all, there's an ice cream truck that frequently lingers in front of the house, its Pied Piper jingle ringing in her ears.

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Freaks is a consummate tease, slowly revealing disconcerting scraps of information, sometimes supplying them to the viewer despite the fact that Chloë, who acts as our eyes and ears, is too young to make sense of them. Who is the ice cream truck driver (brilliantly played by Bruce Dern) and what does he want with her? Why does her dad sometimes bleed from his eyes and wipe the blood away in a panic when he realises? Why does he do the opposite of most loving fathers and keep insisting to her that she's not special?

Kolker (best known for her work as young Robin in Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.) is superb in the leading role, easily holding her own against the older actors and carrying much of the weight of the film on her then eight-year-old shoulders. Her Chloë is as naive and as prone to flights of fancy as any child, giving us reason to doubt and fear for her, yet for all the other qualities she exhibits it's her fierce will that stands out. We are never asked to pity her, simply to identify with her, and Kolker's formidable performance makes that possible regardless of the age of the viewer.

Writers/directors Zach Lipovsky and Adam B Stein show a keen understanding of how children think and keep our young heroine believable whilst gradually filling in the picture regarding what's happening around her. Despite the slow build-up, there are action scenes slipped into the narrative from early on, and strong character dynamics also help to ensure that things never get dull. Perhaps most importantly, Lipovsky and Stein never ask us to suspend disbelief until they've earned it. By the time those moments come we are sufficiently invested in the story for them to seem absolutely natural.

On a whole different level from most films of its ilk, Freaks breathes new life into old genre ideas. It's a tremendous piece of entertainment, gripping from start to finish, and it deserves to make Kolker into a star. For 82-year-old Dern, who hasn't appeared in a science fiction film since Silent Running, it's a wonderful return to form. This is a film that should not be missed.

Reviewed on: 03 Mar 2019
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Seven-year-old Chloe's father tells her to adopt an assumed identity if she’s ever separated from him, or to hide in a well-provisioned panic room if he should not return from one of his forays outside. But Chloe is determined to find out what exactly lies outside the door he's frightened of.

Director: Zach Lipovsky, Adam B Stein

Writer: Zach Lipovsky, Adam B Stein

Starring: Emile Hirsch, Bruce Dern, Lexy Kolker

Year: 2018

Runtime: 104 minutes

Country: Canada

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