**Spoilers for the film below!**
Imagine a world where everyday people possess superpowers. These powers, suppressed by the governments of the world, are unknown to the majority of the population whilst they sit just bellow the surface of society. This is the world Freaks – You’re One of Us promises to explore – a world where government cover-ups extend to your neighbourhood, as potentially dangerous forces lives next door. One such superpowered individual is working-class mother Wendy (Cornelia Gröschel), who after a traumatic event as a child, has been prescribed a luminous blue medication to suppress her latent abilities. After work, Wendy is approached by a stranger who states the eponymous ‘you’re one of us’ line, before claiming to be immortal and being hit by a truck. Despite her disbelief, Wendy stops taking the not-so-subtle blue pill and enters into a world of human experiments, secret prisons and an underground world of superheroes.
Our media landscape is not in short supply of examples re-examining the superhero genre. From Watchmen to The Boys, there are plenty of mainstream examples of creatives questioning our fascination with these modern mythical beings. Against this backdrop, Freaks’ attempt to differentiate itself from where its contemporaries came from its style. Freaks felt as if its presentation would be more aligned with Andrea Arnold’s Red Road than a Hollywood blockbuster, with a smattering of comedy to keep it light-hearted. The smaller scope of the story promised an intimacy with the characters and their struggles trying to live with superpowers within a system determined to silence their existence. This relatively fresh presentation for the genre really works within the film’s opening act. Wendy’s day-to-day life feels directionless. The camera is unsteady as she fails to maintain any control over her life, and the story grows darker as fears of eviction loom over her family.
The world of the film felt grounded, as Cornelia Gröschel sells Wendy’s worn-down suburban nature. Life has been a struggle for Wendy, but she is not in any position to change that. Once Wendy discovers her power is immense physical strength, Gröschel effortlessly flows into portraying the sense of liberation felt by the character. This works in parallel with Tim Oliver Schultz’s character, Elmar. As the film’s primary antagonist, his decent from quirky co-worker to power-hungry incel is conveyed convincingly and watching the pair’s dynamic shift throughout the film remains its best feature.
This is all to say that Freaks had a great deal of promise. The film, however, could not keep this momentum up past the first act. This is mainly due to Freak’s biggest issue, that it should not be a 92-minute long film. Both the director, Felix Binder, and the writer, Marc O. Seng, have a long history in television (Marc O. Seng having written 7 episodes of Netflix’s Dark). In my opinion, this has created a situation where the film is juggling too much within its limited time frame. Over the course of its hour and a half run time, Freaks establishes: a superhero origin; a supervillain origin; a governmental secondary antagonist; a tragic side character with his own origins; a governmental conspiracy and a family drama. If Freaks had more time to breath and allow characters, ideas and story to develop either in a mini-series or longer film, then it could have really worked. Instead, Freaks tries to say everything, and winds up saying absolutely nothing. Plot threads are dropped, character arcs are cut short and everything feels unsatisfying and pointless.
By the second act, the plot threads, now established, are too numerous to be given any time to end in a satisfying way. The film’s work-around is to, instead, drop the unique angle of a realist drama with superheroes and replace it with a by-the-numbers action film. Trying to wrap everything up means the film now runs on a checklist. Established the government may know Wendy is off her meds? Guess we have a scene where they confront her, lock her up and isolate her from the world. There’s a creepily possessive man who lusts after Wendy? He needs to be defeated in an unsatisfying climax that contradicts the very set up of his powers. This checklist feel means that the narrative gives too much and too little attention to different aspects of the story. Elmar’s relationship with his father is meant to be his emotional centre but only receives 2-minutes of build up before reaching its apex, whilst time is wasted on unfunny comedy routines in otherwise serious scenes.
The best way to denote the experience of watching Freaks would be to describe how the person I saw it with and I both felt at the halfway mark and at the end. By halfway, we had turned to each other, and in agreement stated that Freaks was indeed a good film. At the end, we were laughing at the self-important shambles it had descended into, prompting a lengthy discussion over where the hell Freaks had gone wrong. Freaks hadn’t ever gone wrong but had front-loaded itself with too much to handle in the allotted time, meaning nothing had any lasting impression. By halfway we could see the potential the film had, and were both disappointed by the film’s failure to land the dismount. I watched Freaks, and I will no sooner forget Freaks.
Freaks: You’re one of us, directed by Felix Binder, is available to stream now via Netflix, Certificate 15.