Young Lexy Kolker looks so much like young Drew Barrymore that I had to double-check the credits to “Freaks” to make sure Stephen King wasn’t involved, that I wasn’t seeing a “Firestarter” sequel or remake.
And as this dark, hallucinatory vision from Zach Lipovsky and Adam B. Stein unfolded, I had to check again.
It’s a paranoid fantasy about a little girl (Kolker, of TV’s “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” and “Shooter”) locked in her house by her seemingly unhinged father.
Emile Hirsch would have been my first, or at least second best guess as to who they’d get to play Dad. He’s spot on.
The first words we hear from the father tell us Chloe has been sequestered, pretty much since birth.
“You’ve gotta be a good HIDER, otherwise the bad guys will find you!”
He drills her on her cover name, the answers she’s to give if “the bad guys” get their hands on her.
“I’m Eleanor Reed, age 7.”
She recites details about “Eleanor” from memory, daily exercises Dad tests her on constantly. Heaven help her if she gets one wrong.
“BANG! You’re dead…You don’t know the answer to something, you make something up. You need to lie to be normal.”
But who’s the abnormal one here?
Dad doesn’t sleep, because ” “I can only protect you when I’m awake.” He sometimes bleeds from his eyes. He watches old videos, duct-tapes windows so that no one can see in and fends off Chloe’s many demands to “play with Harper,” a child next door, or to have ice cream.
Hearing that vendor’s truck go by daily is torture to the child, even if she’s supposedly never been out.
And there’s another form of torture being exercised in this cluttered, child-drawing-decorated suburban home. When Chloe makes a big mistake, she’s locked in a closet.
“You opened the door. You almost got us killed!”
So what are we dealing with, here? Crazed survivalist? Man who lost his mind when he lost his wife (Amanda Crew), whom Chloe “sees” in another closet in her room, apparently demented? This much is certain, Dad has weaponized his paranoia.
“You know what’s in an ice cream truck? Frozen kids’ bodies!”
Or has Dad got his “reasons” for behaving this way, treating Chloe as he does?
We can ascertain from the script that the co-writers/directors, who have shared credits on episodic TV and TV movies (“Ingressed Obsessed” the “Kim Possible” movie) is that double-checking that “Firestarter” connection isn’t unwarranted.
Like Mr. King, these two must have binged on “The Twilight Zone” — probably as they were writing “Freaks.” Perhaps that explains why the wind goes out of the picture’s sails once the obvious-as-you-reason-it-out “mystery” is solved. The script is structured to play towards a punchline, which “Freaks” hits at about the one hour mark — “Twilight Zone” (the longer seasons) length.
As to what happens after that punch line/revelation is that Chloe goes outside, and the guy driving that damned ice cream truck is none other than Bruce Dern.
“Freaks” is far more interesting when it’s not spelling itself out to us, just an adult and a child, trapped in a house together, paranoid and loving, nurturing and torturing, all at once.
The first two acts are where the “hallunicatory” comes from, time-and-space-warping effects that put Chloe into other rooms, with other people, the sense that this is a world post-apocalypse, which kind of explains Dad freaking out at every knock at the door.
The third act is a pull-out-all-the-stops data dump of delayed exposition — what actually is happening here — and the rising threat level facing Chloe, the threats coming from all sides, but with the fear we start to develop emanating from her.
The final act isn’t as interesting as the first two were to me. But Hirsch impresses, as usual, as a man losing his wits and Dern always gives fair value as a canny old coot who knows more than he’s letting on.
And young Ms. Kolker holds her own with the heavier weights (Grace Park shows up as a formidable cop), and suggests that yes, should the Great Stephen King Revival extend to remaking “Firestarter” (It’s in developement), there’s this little girl with a lot of TV credits who might be perfect for the part.
MPAA Rating: R for violence and some language
Cast: Emile Hirsch, Bruce Dern, Lexy Kolker, Amanda Crew, Grace Park
Credits: Written and directed by Zach Lipovsky, Adam B. Stein A Well Go USA release.
Running time: 1:44