Indie Sci-Fi Film Freaks is Basically the Coolest X-Men Movie (That Isn’t Actually an X-Men Movie)

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A granddad who can disappear; a long-missing mom who can fly. At first glance, the extraordinarily-abled outcasts whom society brands as dangerous in sci-fi movie Freaks (streaming here on Peacock!) seem to have a whole lot in common with the mutants of Marvel’s X-Men movie-verse — a resemblance that feels even more apt in light of recent gritty X-Men projects like 2017’s Logan and the three seasons of Noah Hawley’s well-received Legion TV series (which also debuted in 2017).

Though it’s an original IP far removed from the branded X-Men universe, Freaks fits into the same late-2010s heroes-in-hiding zeitgeist as the X-Men projects that showed the less-glamourous side of possessing “Abnormal” abilities, as Freaks’ social culture of shunning frames it. Directed by Kim Possible movie helmers Zach Lipovsky and Adam Stein — the same pair reported to be at the wheel for the upcoming Final Destination 6 — it scored big with audiences at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival before finding a light theatrical release window the following year.

Heroes under the radar: Freaks channels the X-Men's grittiest side stories

At the movie’s center is 7-year-old telepath, Chloe (Lexy Kolker), and her hyper-paranoid dad, Henry (Emile Hirsch). She’s a sweet kid who uses her telepathy in innocent-kid ways while drinking in her daily homeschooling lessons like a sponge; he’s a guy who can bend time but lives in constant fear of what might happen if the tightly-controlled police state finds out that their closely-guarded house is actually inhabited by a pair of fugitive “Abnormals.”

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Like its hardscrabble (and bigger-budget) X-Men screen peers, there’s a grounded earthiness to this super-heroically themed movie that hews closer to the kind of deal-with-it reality that the most beleaguered of X-Men characters inhabit than the far-flung, space-alien world of galactic travel and sorcery of the mutants’ more conventionally comic-bookish Marvel movie cousins. Think of a TV show like Legion, with little bit of Stephen King’s Firestarter thrown in for gifted-child good measure, and you’ll be somewhere in the general ballpark of Freaks’ paranormal pariahs-with-powers vibe.

Things start out slow-paced, with Chloe and Henry sharing a sheltered-but-happy home life that leaves the energetic girl constantly craving contact with the outside world (and especially treats from the tantalizingly close ice cream truck that’s always passing by). Henry’s obsessed with convincing Chloe that she’s a totally normal child — never mind that both she and her father occasionally bleed from their eyeballs, the telltale sign that they possess superhuman powers that are anything but typical.

A man in a hairnet is choked while a hand holding a pen begins to stab his eyes.
A man in a hairnet is choked while a hand holding a pen begins to stab his eyes.

A man is attacked in Freaks (2018). Photo: Freaks (2018) - Restaurant Escape Scene (4/10) | Movieclips YouTube

One day Chloe steals some unsupervised time outdoors, making a bee line straight for that elusive ice cream truck. Without giving away spoilers, it’s an encounter that kicks open a huge door of next-level awareness for Chloe and her place not only in her strange family (is her mother really dead or is that just Henry’s convenient story?) — but even in the wider world that wants to put innocents like Chloe behind bars… or worse.

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The iconic Bruce Dern plays the crotchety old ice cream man as the ultimate subversive mentor, the kind of guy who tells you to ignore your ‘fraidy-cat dad, even though it’s clear that they share the same basic values. Further adventures with the ice cream man bring Chloe to the realization that her mother (whom she’s been seeing in her own unique visions) is very much alive, and that it’s about damn time that someone stood up to the powers that be and spring her out of her imprisonment at a super-secure government mountain compound.

The movie’s slow start more or less becomes a distant memory from that point forward, even as Freaks devises ingeniously budget-friendly ways to suggest its gifted characters’ varied super-abilities on the screen. Freaks isn’t a visually whiz-bang movie with its sci-fi special effects, trading costly CGI spectacle for a kind of low-fi, lived-in sort of superhuman signaling. But through some pretty clever manipulation of circumstances and scenarios, Chloe’s powers (as well as her family’s) come across with as much high-impact clarity as anything you’ve seen Magneto do at the movies — even when she’s just summoning mind tricks inside her humble bedroom closet.

Part of what lifts Freaks into genuinely memorable movie territory is that it doesn’t let all its sympathetic sci-fi super-heroes off the story hook. After one particularly poignant emotional flare-up between Chloe and her dad, Henry cautions her that she’ll someday wish she hadn’t said such hurtful words to him in anger. And though he can trick time and she can bend thoughts, not even Chloe (or Henry, for that matter) could foresee how tragically prophetic, by the movie’s gripping and bittersweet end, that prediction turns out to be.

Stream Freaks on Peacock here.