Freak Show is an amazing coming-of-age movie about a queer character—something still rare in mainstream media. What largely makes this film so special is the visibility it will receive by default just because of the incredible artists who've attached their names to it: Bette Midler, AnnaSophia Robb, Abigail Breslin, and Laverne Cox are all casually assembled within this legendary cast of seasoned icons and rising new talents.
At the film's forefront is one of those newcomers: Alex Lawther, a British actor, who's appeared in few other films so far—most notably as a young Alan Turing in the Oscar-winning The Imitation Game.
"When I first read the script I thought I’d never come across or seen a creature like this character," Lawther said. "I couldn’t imagine myself playing someone who lives so much in the exterior. For me, as a Brit, I’m quite inward looking."
Despite the differences between him and his character, Billy Bloom, Lawther rose to the challenge, delivering an equally hilarious and heart-wrenching performance as a young boy who moves in with his estranged father in the South, and attends a new school where the student body doesn't exactly give him a warm welcome.
"We were so lucky to find Alex," said James St. James, the former NYC club kid-turned-author, whose young adult novel inspired the film. "This a star-making role for him. He is such a breakout."
The role demanded someone who understands the gravitas of standing in the spotlight as a brazen, comfortably queer character, however young they may be. "We were seeing all of these kids, and that role can turn chaotic so quickly [because] there’s so many subtleties," producer Bryan Rabin said. "So I said to all the producers that we should start looking in Britain for classically trained actors. And the moment we saw Alex audition, we knew he was our Billy because he nailed it."
Lawther certainly found himself in quite the unusual position for his largest film role yet. While stars flocked around him, he said the set felt very unusually intimate and familial. "There was always a sense we were making a low budget film in New York and it had the same home-grown feeling as indie films I’ve made," Lawther said. "And not to say that I’ve made an awful lot, but there was something wonderfully strange about the paradox between Bette Midler being on set, but the feeling that we were just a gang making a comedy drama together. There’s a strange sort of juxtaposition between having a breakfast burrito and also Bette Midler being next to me in my makeup chair."
The film comes at a crucial time in the history of queer visibility, and it's already had more of an impact than the production team ever could have imagined. "When we premiered at the Berlin Film Festival, kids came up to me and said 'I’m being bullied in school' [or] 'My parents don’t understand me,'" Rabin said. "Whether they were gay or straight or just different, they didn’t live within society’s box. If we save one kid with this movie, we’ve done our job."
Setting out to write the story, St. James never intended to pen something that would become so timely—about letting your freak flag fly even as the world is telling you that you're not good enough from every direction.
"I took a lot of things that happened to me and then I sort of built on it—into the person that I wish I was, the way that I wished I would've dealt with things in high school," St. James said. "I wrote it in 2007 and the idea of a drag queen prom queen was science fiction at the time. It's all a litte more relevant now."
When the initial story was written, and the movie entered production, we were all living in a world that scoffed at the idea of Trump ever actually assuming the presidency. Now, of course, art, and this story in particular, take on a much different, more urgent context.
"Our hero’s nemesis, Lynette—she’s the Christian, right-wing, typical... just monstrous to Billy, and one of her campaign lines for prom was 'Let’s Make America Great Y’all,' so we were putting that in thinking that never in a million years Trump would get elected," Rabin said. "So it’s really relevant now. He's given people the ability to hate out in the open and there is no more secrecy about it, so all bullying and sexual orientation crimes are going back through the roof like during the AIDS crisis."
Certainly, in a world where just today trans people have been banned from serving in the military, a major film about a queer boy challenging his gender normative, conservative high school is something to praise. The visibility that it brings will be instrumental in giving young LGBTQ children the chance to see something of their own story told onscreen.
"In terms of visibility, whether it be queerness or whether it be lack of diversity in general, it is something that is important and I think should be important," Lawther said. "But I feel hopeful for the fact that things are improving and things are changing."
The film will be distributed across theaters in January by IFC films. Take a look at a clip from Freak Show, below: