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‘Some Freaks’ review (Fantasia Fest 2016)

Produced by Mia Chang, Tim Harms, Lovell Holder, Ryan Smith, Neil LaBute
Written and Directed by Ian MacAllister-McDonald
Starring Thomas Mann, Lily Mae Harrington, Marin Ireland, Lachlan Buchanan

I hate Neil LaBute.

I hate his misanthropy, I hate the way he shoves our faces into it, I hate the way he semi-shrouds said misanthropy in intellectual pseudo-justification.

I’m not venting here; I mention this because at about the midway point of writer/director Ian MacAllister McDonald’s debut feature Some Freaks, I felt I was watching a high school/college take on LaBute’s ethos and style. As the credits began to roll, with an underwhelmed and disappointed reaction to the film, I saw Neil LaBute’s name appear as one of the Executive Producers. What a surprise.

I do want to say up front that I did NOT hate Some Freaks I didn’t particularly like it, but I didn’t want to throw things at the screen as I’ve wanted to after watching some of LaBute’s efforts.

The film starts off fairly well, as one-eyed Matt (Thomas Mann), a senior in high school, is enduring another day of abuse at the hands of his fellow classmates. They taunt him, forcibly removing his eye patch, demanding to “see it” (meaning his empty eye socket).

His home life isn’t too terrific either; he lives with his exhausted, exasperated single mom, who’s got an infant to take care of as well. The two have a contentious relationship that seems ready to turn truly caustic at any time.

Matt finds some tiny solace in his friendship with fellow outcast Elmo (Ely Henry, whose looks suggest a young Paul Giamatti), a closeted (to everyone but Matt) homosexual who lusts after one of the studly basketball players.

One day, apparent true love arrives for Matt: his lab partner, Jill, who is overweight, but seemingly quite confident and fearless. The two begin an awkward but sincere romance.

But when Jill is set to go off to a distant college, Matt is quite upset. And when he visits her for the first time there, he’s shocked to find she’s lost quite a bit of weight.

This opens up a floodgate of Matt’s (at times quite ugly) insecurities.

The directions the film takes from here on left me quite cold. There are some contrivances and some real head scratchers when it came to character motivations, but what really sank the whole thing for me was the sheer misanthropy and distrust in humanity that permeates every frame.

There’s an interesting supporting character, Patrick, a good-looking, popular guy who had eyes for Jill as early as high school. Her weight seemed to make no difference to him. He just thought she could like him for who he was, as opposed to liking him solely for his looks. After she loses the weight, she still catches his eye.

This offers a nice contrast to Matt, who claims to love Jill, but only wants to make her fat again. His blurted-out reasoning for this is honest to the point of being utterly pathetic. I like the fact that this is pointed out in the film; however, I really, really didn’t buy that any guy who’s trying to hold on to someone he ostensibly loves would say these things outright.

As for the Patrick thread, the subplot plays out in a disappointing, “And….?” manner. The culmination of this storyline is intercut with the climactic doings of both Matt’s and Elmo’s characters. The crosscutting of ugly goings-on with pathetic characters echoes sequences in Boogie Nights and especially Requiem For a Dream.

That’s all well and good, yet at this point, I’d lost all interest in any of these people. I’m all for not sugar-coating situations and people’s true motivations, and for exposing the dark side of humanity. But give me SOMETHING; I hate Requiem, but Boogie Nights developed such love and sympathy for its loser characters that you’re okay to wade through the ugliness to find out what happens to them, all the while hoping for the best.

It should be noted that the acting here is mostly quite good, especially by Lily Mae Harrington as Jill. Mann has the tougher role, as his character goes too far to maintain sympathy or interest, but that’s really on McDonald.

In all candor, Some Freaks is, in many ways, a more than respectable feature debut. It’s not a hideous mess, it’s far from amateurish; it’s really a matter of sensibility and choices. And, of course, personal taste. If you love LaBute and couldn’t get enough of Requiem, you may find yourself loving this film.

If not, you may have a tough time making it to the final shot.

And – no spoilers – but boy is that last shot unearned.

Nova Seed premiered at July 23 at the Fantasia International Film Festival

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