Sometimes even casting a 3 time Golden Globe Winner (and two-time Oscar nominee) cannot save a movie from being a disappointing convoluted mess like Freak Show is. Bette Midler sails through her cameo performance as the on/off alcoholic mother (Muv) of Billy Bloom ( a remarkably good Alex Lawther) who is the protagonist in this off-kilter coming of age story.
When Muv goes off on another drinking binge for some months Billy is sent to live with his wealthy father Larry Pine on his enormous estate in some unnamed Redneck State in middle America even though the two are practically strangers. Billy is a teenage drag queen who seems to style himself as a modern-day Boy George and he sets out to make his outrageous mark in the conservative High School he now has to attend, which goes down like a lead ballon. One of his only two friends is a girl whose name he never caught so he calls her Blah Blah Blah (AnnaSophia Robb) because she is a fount of knowledge of school gossip. The other new best friend is a football jock, school hero and genuine nice guy is Flip (Ian Nelson) and he and Billy’s tight bond is a mystery to the whole school, and in a way, to us too.
Billy gets into a fight with some school thugs and gets beaten up badly which results in his attackers getting expelled, and the school authorities hastily establishing a no-hate-crime policy. It also draws Billy and Flip closer as the football jock had been the only one who had gone to Billy’s rescue. At the same time most of the girls at school intensify their loathing especially the homophobic Lynette (Abigail Breslin) who expects to be unopposed when she runs for Homecoming Queen. No prizes for guessing who decides to run against her, provoking Lynette claiming God is on her side, and very oddly the appearance on campus of a local TV news reporter (Laverne Cox) looking for a scoop.
The movie is the directing debut of Trudie Styler who had a production budget that most indie filmmakers would die for to make a small film like this (even the costumes were done by 4 time Oscar winner Colleen Attwood). Adapted from the best selling young adult novel by James St James but the weak script somehow loses the edginess and the conviction of the original story. Styler confuses us several times like when we discover that Flip isn’t gay after all as strongly hinted from the beginning, and there is a clumsy hasty reconciliation between Billy and his father who have ignored each other up until now, but suddenly they kiss and make up just as the final credits roll.
There are however some things that redeem this rather wasted opportunity : namely the very talented young Brit actor Lowther making his American debut with such a compelling performance. The boy is a real star in the making. Plus there was veteran actress Celia Weston as Florence the acerbic housekeeper who enjoyed the fact that she had been given the only good lines in the movie. Then there is the soundtrack which one would expect to be good given Ms Styler’s family, and it is in fact her (non binary) daughter Eliot Sumner who makes the best contribution.
Plus don’t think you are imagining things, that really is John McEnroe playing the part of the school Tennis Coach