In The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde writes: “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” It’s one of many mantras employed by self-prescribed “trans-visionary gender obliviator” Billy Bloom, the vibrant protagonist at the heart of Freak Show, an adaptation of James St. James’ 2007 YA novel of the same name, and the directorial debut of longtime actress and producer Trudie Styler. Freak Show tackles the realities of high school bullying and addresses the violence and bigotry aimed at LGBTQ communities today.
“The themes of this film speak to a very imperfect world that we live in where bullying exists and [where] people from all creeds, colors, genders are not allowed to live the lives that they were born to express and be themselves,” says Styler.
When 17-year-old Bloom (Alex Lawther) is plucked from the world of “grace, glamor and Gucci” that he enjoys with his mother (Bette Midler) in Connecticut and forced to live with his estranged father in the South, he is tormented by peers in his new high school. His father (Larry Pine) is hardly understanding, advising him that “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down,” and his unlikely friend, popular football star Flip Kelly, echoes the same sentiment. Bloom heeds this advice, but is still met with disdain at school.
“Even though he’s complied with his costuming for school à la Flip, you know, ‘Less fabulous, a little more Wrangler,’ of course that doesn’t work because Billy is fabulous on the inside as well as the out and what does that mean? He’s just Billy and he longs to be Billy and accepted to be Billy Bloom—and he’s not,” explains Styler. “So the bullying continues irrespective of the apparel as it does in our world. When you’re targeted, it doesn’t matter what you say if you try to comply. When you’re out, you’re out: You’re a loser. You’re branded and life can become intolerable. And we’ve seen in real life some terrible situations of our teenagers being driven to despair and suicide. And this is a real thing.”
But the more Bloom is ridiculed, the more he is driven to live his truth. His quest for the truth within himself and others culminates in his decision to run against the scripture-quoting Lynette (Abigail Breslin) for homecoming queen. Although Freak Show the novel was written a decade ago, its topics are more relevant than ever. Styler placed the film’s narrative squarely in the present day as Lynette touts a familiar slogan on her campaign trail: Make America Great Again.
“Trump was not president when we shot the movie. He was running as a Republican candidate and nobody thought that he stood a chance because his rhetoric was an abomination and he can barely get to the end of a sentence. But this mantra, when he ran out of steam, that he came up with constantly and still does, ‘Let’s Make America Great Again,’ we were talking and saying, ‘You know, it’s such a good line for the mean, Bible-thumping, short-on-ideas-but-big-on-rhetoric Lynette. Let’s have her say that,’” Styler says. “When we screened the movie…at NewFest in New York and that line [came] up, there was this groan coming from the audience. And we thought it was going to sort of like be imbued with some humor, but it wasn’t. It was imbued with a lot of sadness, actually. It was sort of like it was the groan of the collective going like, ‘What a situation we’re in.’ It went quite dark.”
While Freak Show does a lot of heavy lifting, it has no shortage of comedy, and its focus on inclusivity is a welcome and necessary addition to the canon of coming-of-age teen flicks. In order to appropriately relay the message of the film, Styler recruited LGBTQ artists and activists to contribute. Boy George and Perfume Genius provide the soundtrack to the movie’s most prominent scenes, and Midler and Laverne Cox round out the cast.
“I did a knowing wink to the audience that these are not only great actresses—Bette and Laverne—but they’re great activists as well, and these themes really resonate in human life in 2017, and these women have helped redress some of these issues in a very meaningful way,” Styler says. “I’d like to think that it’s some kind of call to action in a non-preachy way, this little movie that I hope can engage high schoolers to have dialogue and provoke discussion about how things are at schools. And I hope that we can start to, as Billy says, start a new tradition in school right now. Let it be about tolerance and inclusivity and create a community of supporting each other. I know that might sound idealistic, but…the age that I am, I’d really love to see before I die, a world that is just much more tolerant.”