The dark “Freaks” is a welcome surprise, a blend of paranoid thriller and superhero excitement, all delivered with sharp writing and directing rather than expensive special effects,
In a Los Angeles feeling the reverberations of a terror not immediately explained to audiences, 7-year-old Chloe (Lexy Kolker) lives an isolated life with her father (Emile Hirsch) in a house where the doors are tightly locked and the windows covered in newspaper and duct tape. “The bad guys” are outside, Dad explains to Chloe, and they can’t let them in or they’ll take Chloe away — just like they did her mother (Amanda Crew). Dad drills Chloe in assuming another child’s identity, though why she’s doing this isn’t immediately clear, either.
Chloe seems to have a rich imagination, conjuring up a protective older sister, Harper (Ava Telek), and sometimes seeing an imprisoned woman who just might be Chloe’s missing and presumed-dead mother.
And what to make of the old man (played by Bruce Dern) who parks his ice-cream truck near Chloe’s window. Is he just a creepy old man? Or is there something going on that he, or Chloe’s dad, isn’t telling?
Actually, there’s plenty not visible at first in this highly imaginative and compelling script, written by the film’s directors, Adam Stein and Zack Lipovsky. (The pair also collaborated on the live-action “Kim Possible” TV movie for Disney Channel earlier this year.) They capture fear of the unknown, through the allegory of super-powered people, more succinctly and effectively than most of the “X-Men” franchise ever could. And they do it with an economy of scale in the effects, which work as well as any blockbuster’s expensive CGI, and a surplus of emotional weight.
Hirsch is compelling as the fear-driven father trying to protect his girl from monsters real and imagined, and Dern, who at 83 still can find new ways to surprise us. But young Kolker — whose biggest role to date was a recurring appearance as a future-seeing girl on “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” — gives the performance that audiences will remember best, as she finds the balance between childhood innocence and steely resolve when the twisty plot unfolds all of its delicious secrets.
Opens Friday, September 13, in select theaters, including Megaplex at The District. Rated R for violence and some language. Running time: 105 minutes.