MacAllister manages a truly original spin on the “Edgy John Hughes” sub-genre.
There are plenty of movies about how high school is hell. We’ve all seen legions of misfit teens band together against their beautiful peers, discover their most authentic selves, and ship off to college by the time the credits roll, ready for the magic to really happen. Some Freaks, playwright Ian MacAllister McDonald’s newest addition to the canon, takes a less idyllic approach. The film tells us that, sure, high school may be hell, but college isn’t much better. It’s the rare coming-of-age tale that follows its wounded characters to their supposed salvation and then questions why they thought it might save them. That doesn’t make for the sunniest viewing experience, but it doesn’t scan as full-blown cynicism either—one gets the sense that Some Freaks is onto something, that its darker edges are intentional rather than inflammatory. Even when its themes don’t always gel into a cohesive thesis, MacAllister manages a truly original spin on the “Edgy John Hughes” sub-genre.
The film centers on Matt (Thomas Mann of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), a Rhode Island high school senior with no parents and one eye. He falls hard for Jill (Lily Mae Harrington), a witty, overweight transfer student, after the pair dissects a pig together in biology class. Along with outgoing, gay Elmo (Ely Henry), they navigate the inevitable shittiness of adolescent physical/sexual otherness the only way movie teens know how: with cigarettes, anti-prom, and school-hour trips to the dump. Their relationship is tested, though, when Jill commits to a school back home in LA, while Matt stays back in Rhode Island without a plan.
It’s here that Some Freaks shrewdly rotates on its Perks of Being a Wallflower-colored axis. If the first half sounds a bit like a paint-by-numbers outcast story, that’s because it sort of is. Then we get to the meat of things. Matt goes to visit Jill partway through her freshman year, only to discover that she’s lost a significant amount of weight. He feels betrayed, threatened by her grasp for normalcy despite his own donning of a prosthetic eye. McDonald’s screenplay maintains a delicate balance here: it highlights Matt’s naiveté in assuming that their shared trauma is enough to shield Jill from social pressure, but it also acknowledges her superficiality. As the film starts to undermine its narrative about two young people taking on the world together and instead reveals the ways that social ostracizing can beget terrible behavior, it’s careful not to preach. At times its impartiality makes it difficult to understand exactly what McDonald wants to say, but a slightly muddled moral center is an easy enough price to pay to avoid excess treacle.
None of the shifts and developments would work without a grounding presence, and Harrington rises to the challenge. Warm, sharp and deeply complicated, Jill surprises the audience as often as she surprises Matt, and the handful of blows to her put-on imperviousness truly sting. Mann is good too, but he’s less dynamic: he has a good side and an ugly side, but Harrington turns Jill into an emotional dodecahedron. It’s a testament to her pull as a performer that we wind up on Jill’s side even after she ruthlessly taunts Matt over his physical deformity during a particularly ugly fight.
McDonald’s direction, while not necessarily groundbreaking, manages to give key moments real staying power. There are several moments of fairly obvious parallelism. It can feel fairly cheap as two scenes with thematic links play out side-by-side, but he excels at reflecting Matt’s frenzied state of mind with a swoop of the camera or dissonant burst of Walter Sickert’s score. He has clear-eyed empathy for his characters even as they act repulsively, and the early scenes of Matt and Jill’s courtship feel hesitant, tender and authentically nonchalant.
It’s easy to get away with telling us that high school is hell because high school ends; we’ll swallow a story about hardship so long as there’s a breath of fresh air to be had at the end of the uphill battle. Some Freaks ends on a shakily hopeful note, but there’s nothing easy about it. It’s a movie that says high school is hell and so is college. And so might your entire life be if you don’t learn to transcend the scars you collect along the way. There’s a sourness to that, but a more profound truth and a sense that, if given the chance, McDonald might have a solid career ahead interrogating our most-beloved tropes.