Political Film Review #569

Transgender persons are increasingly finding acceptance on an equal basis with everyone else, based on the doctrine of integrationism. The Social Darwinist doctrine of assimilation requires conformity, leaving transgender persons as permanent outsiders. The two doctrines collide in Freak Show, directed by Trudie Styler.

Most action in the film surrounds Billy Bloom (played by Alex Lawther), who enters a new high school because Muv, his mother, (Bette Middler), has gone out of the country, and his residence is transferred to the mansion of his father, millionaire William Bloom (Larry Pine) in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida (according to the novel of the same name by James St. James). The two parents divorced years ago, as depicted in scenes when Billy (then played by Eddie Schweighardt) has become so cultivated by his glamourous mother that William realized that the son that he wanted so much had become transgendered. When Billy goes to school on the first day, he is dressed up in a gorgeous outfit and a face beautified by mascara; he repeats the costuming and facial glamorization every day thereafter. The response among the assimilationist-oriented students is to heap verbal comments, spit wads, and even violence upon him. A teacher (Chrisopher Keogh) does nothing to stop the carnage whereupon Billy senses anti-Semitism and attacks him for his German ancestry. On one occasion, Bill is trapped, beaten, kicked by the school bullies to the point that he is in a coma for five days and takes at least a month to recover after returning home.

But Billy has two special friends. Flip Kelly (Ian Nelson), who appears at first to be gay, is a strong hetero-appearing athlete on the school football team. Flip helps Billy daily during the convalescent period. But when Billy has recovered sufficiently from the incident, Flip asks him to wear clothing similar to the other boys (jeans) to return the favor, a clue that he will eventually drop his support for Billy. The other special friend is weirdly named Blah Blah Blah (Anne Sophia Robb), who gives him emotional support. She tells him about a secret group of students who dare not contest the assimilationist majority but are on his side.

When he returns to school, he is greeted by a “welcome home” gathering, and soon the story comes to a climax when Billy decides to run for homecoming queen against Lynette (Abigail Breslin), who has been grooming herself for the role since seventh grade. Transgender actress Felicia Watts (Laverne Cox) interviews the two candidates for television but cannot hide her disgust for Felicia. Prior to the vote, the two make speeches that enable filmviewers to hear the two doctrines presented without academic jargon. Billy stresses the need to accept everyone’s identity, including the fact that there a bit of freakishness in everyone that is masked for public consumption—a point made in the bathroom one day when one of his former attackers tries to kiss him, demonstrating that the real reason for violence against Billy was latent homosexuality. His opponent, with a slight southern accent, stresses the need for conventional behavior and even injects the Ku Klux Klan’s longtime political slogan America First.

Films often make their most important points when one character undergoes attitude change. Billy appears not to change, but three persons clearly do. One is the student whose latent homosexuality comes out privately. Flip, whose nickname was evidently assigned due to his flipflops, is the second one. Billy gracefully accepts his betrayal as something imbedded deep in his personality. The third is his father, who after listening to the speeches, greets Billy warmly, now for the first time accepting his son as a transgender person. The change in Billy is increasing testimony about the lesson that everyone is stuck in their own personalities and must ultimately achieve self-acceptance to mature.

The Political Film Society rarely encounters films containing major, politically timely philosophical debates presented in humanistic terms. Freak Show, exhibited without much fanfare in early 2018, has now been nominated for best film on human rights of 2018. MH