“Find your tribe” is a running theme through decades of cinema about the American high school experience. Figure out who your people are, see who shares your interests and values and make a home among them.
But as the coarse yet sweet “Some Freaks” points out, that’s also another way of enforcing “stay in your lane.” Because God forbid you and your fellow outsiders make an effort to embrace the mainstream, “fit in” with the crowd.
The “freaks” are spread far and wide in Ian MacAllister McDonald’s debut feature. But the biggest one might be the one guy in school forced to wear an eye patch.
Matt (Thomas Mann of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”) is not just taunted at Rhode Island’s Benjamin Franklin High. He’s hounded. Even MacAllister’s camera chases him down the halls, lingers over his shoulder as the Mean Boys, often egged on by Mean Girls, call him “Cyclops,” grab the eye patch and swear “I won’t take a picture (and post it on the Internet)!”
Outcast at school, overhearing schemes to humiliate him through fake prom dates, living with his shrill single-mom sister (Marin Ireland), Matt’s misery seems suicidal. He can’t even walk home from school in peace.
In one of the film’s cleverest moments, we hear the jeers, “Hey EYEball,” shouted through a car window. But that’s just Matt’s lone friend, Elmo (Ely Henry, sort of a young Paul Giamatti).
“You’ve got this whole ‘monocular’ thing going — totally Nick Fury!”
Elmo may prop Matt up a little, but he really delights in delivering long, lusty soliloquies about the jock he fantasizes about. God forbid he actually act on it or even own up to his effeminate sexuality. Let another age-appropriate gay guy make “Gay-dar” driven overtures, and he lashes out.
And then there’s the “new girl,” the friendly-flirtatious lab partner Matt is assigned to in science class. Jill, played by newcomer Lily Mae Harrington as a guarded, beguiling blue-haired vulgarian, has too many piercings and is entirely too quick to make “low flying blimp” jokes about herself. She’s chubby and she knows it.
“I won’t lie to you if you won’t lie to me. How’s that sound?”
“Some Freaks” is at its most charming showing this tentative friendship/courtship as it forms. Matt may be an outcast, but he’s not immune to the cruel judgments of high school, egged on by the more articulate Elmo. Even when it regards his new friend.
“She’s not too fat. She’s four feet too short!”
Another “freak” might be the golden child “Abercrombie & Fitch pretty boy” jock, Patrick (Lachlan Buchannan). He’s sensitive enough to not dive into the hazing his popular friends hurl at the “freaks.” He’s just not man enough to stop it.
Patrick is that pretty boy in a lot of John Hughes films, popular and handsome and determined to stand out as “not LIKE them” in his sensitivity. The funny twist is here is that’s exactly how Patrick sees himself. He wants “credit” for being nice.
“Freaks” follows these kids through a last year in school and into college (across the country) where re-invention is the name of the game. In tender yet brittle and beautifully played scenes, McDonald’s script asks who will survive that transition, and what relationships will break under it.
McDonald’s cast seems too old for these roles. But he has an unfailing eye for high school dress and values and a lethally accurate ear for this generation of Teen Speak. I like the way he emphasizes Matt’s persecution by chasing him, via Steadicam, through the halls, down the street and into his sister’s house.
Mann gives such a natural performance that you forget how good he was in “Me and Earl” — forget that this is a performance at all. Henry lets us see a little of the fear of accepting who he is in the funny, could-be-popular gay teen who isn’t entirely “out.”
But Harrington’s transcendent performance takes us into Jill’s head, a kid smart smart enough to see through fakes, to question motives, able to defend herself with withering put-downs, determined to hide behind a pose or change her situation and herself by changing schools and escaping her past.
Even though there’s nothing we haven’t seen before in this movie, she and “Some Freaks” remind us not just of the cruelties of the teen years, the insecurities and secret shame, but of how young we are when we figure out that it’s all just perception. If you can just move away, you think, you can move on. Even if who you REALLY are catches up to you as it always eventually does.
(My interview with producer and McDonald mentor Neil LaBute is here).
MPAA Rating: unrated, with frank sexual situations, nudity, profanity, teen drinking and smoking
Credits: Written and directed by Ian MacAllister McDonald . A Good Deed release.
Running time: 1:37