Monday, January 15, 2018

A Night With Trudie Styler’s “Freak Show.”

Trudie Styler and Sting.
by Denis Ferrara

“LOOK, if it’s not possible I won’t insist on talking to Patty Smyth, just let me gaze at her from afar!” 

That’s what I said — demanded — from a harried Andrew Saffir last week at the after party for Trudie Styler’s “Freak Show” movie, which had been screened at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema, down on East Houston Street.
Patty Smyth and John McEnroe.
Unfortunately, Patty, aka Mrs. John McEnroe, had to leave with her hubby — who has a small role in the film — for Australia, right after the screening.  So, I had to content myself gazing at the likes of director Styler and her hubby, Sting, who gazed a lot at each other.
(These two — married since 1992 — are apparently still very much in love and in like. It’s rather lovely to see. See — there are some things I just refuse to be cynical about.)  

I’ve always been a great fan of  Patty Smyth, who hypnotized me — and millions of others — during the glory days of MTV with dazzling videos to complement dazzling songs such as “Goodbye to You,” “Warrior” “Downtown Train” and “Sometimes Love Just Ain’t Enough.”  Oh, well--next time.
THIS was one of the liveliest premieres and after-parties Mr. Saffir and his Cinema Society have ever hosted.  There’s been a lot of buzz on Trudie’s movie, and everybody knew that not only would she be there, but so would Sting.  And the audience seemed especially jolly — among them were Hugh and Deborra-Lee Jackman, Martha Stewart, Donna Karan, Dan Abrams, Valerie Simpson, Peter Cincotti, Arianna Huffington,Gina Gerson, Michael Musto, Griffin Dunne, James St. James and in all her glory, Lady Bunny.

The omnipresent Patrick McMullan one of New York’s most fabled celebrity photographers, was even more effusive and effectively complimentary than ever, deftly corralling celebs this way and that, for the best shots.  
Deborra-lee Furness and Hugh Jackman.
While I sat waiting for the film to begin, the party atmosphere seemed to increase — aisles clogged with people air-kissing, lip-kissing and affectionate, non-harassing hugging. I turned to my friends, press rep Scott Gorenstein, who has just joined Sony Pictures Television, and writer Matthew Rettenmund and said, “If the projector breaks down and we don’t see the movie, I’d still rate this night a success!”
James St. James and Lady Bunny.
Griffin Dunne, Sting, and Gina Gershon.
Daniel Benedict, Amy Sacco, and Donna Karan.
Valerie Simpson, Grace Hightower, and B. Michael.
Peter Cincotti. Dan Abrams.
Amanda Lepore and Lady Bunny.
Jamie McCarthy and Patrick McMullan.
Shortly after, during remarks prior to the movie beginning, I learned some of the reason for the rather frantic glee.  This was actually a goodbye party.  The Landmark Sunshine Cinema, which was re-opened and restored in 2001, and which resides in a building that is over 100 years old, will close on January 21st, before being totally demolished to make way for an office building.  “Freak Show” was the last special screening/premiere.  I will be sorry to see it go.
Lizanne Rosenstein, Grace Hightower, Andrew Saffir, and Sandra Lee.
Over the years I’ve attended many a good, some great, and some forgettable films there.  But it was always an adventure and an event to travel down to 143 East Houston Street.  (Even though I would inevitably, in my best/worst curmudgeonly style complain to Andrew Saffir that it was just too far downtown, and the cab ride was shockingly expensive.  Andrew is too nice to suggest nobody was forcing me to take a cab — that’s what subways are for.  But for all my bitching, I never missed a Sunshine Cinema event.  I’m sorry it’s going.)
James St. James, Kristina Kiss, Trudie Styler, Polly Cakes, Julia Wildhack, and Archie Robertson.
NOW, to “Freak Show.”  This movie, based on a 2007 novel by James St. James, is obviously a labor of love for the author, director Styler, and all the actors, including Bette Midler, in a small but colorfully pivotal role. 

It’s the story of high-schooler Billy Bloom (Alex Lawther) who blends his gender and proudly wears a succession of  over-the-top outfits, wigs and cosmetics.  His glamorous devil-may-care mother (Midler) appears to approve.  His father (Larry Pine) does not. 
Family matters propel Billy out of the comfort of a progressive East Coast school, into the heart of the Bible Belt, where his new classmates are not terribly sanguine about Billy’s glitter, lip-liner and don’t-give- a-damn attitude. He is brutally harassed, he makes unlikely friends, he realizes hard truths about his parents, he triumphs. I’d be a liar — and heartless in the extreme — if I said that as the movie winds up, there is not an emotional wallop — a big one. 
Alex Lawther looking heartbreakingly young as Billy Bloom.
But, I’d also be a liar if I didn’t say I’ve seen it all before.  It’s every teenage outcast movie from “Rebel Without a Cause” to “Heathers” to “Mean Girls.” Here the outcast tale tackles the relatively new subject of “gender oblivion” which is the phrase Billy Bloom prefers — he describes himself as gay, doesn’t appear to want to alter his gender, but prefers a wardrobe that reflects an exaggerated androgyny. (At one point he shows up dressed like something out of Tim Burton’s “Corpse Bride.”)
Looking decades older in another scene.
Aside from any similarities to other such stories, “Freak Show” is also very clearly intended for a young adult/teen audience.  It is wildly unsubtle, vividly colorful, with a compellingly bouncy soundtrack. (Boy George, Perfume Genius, Eliot Sumner.)  All the performances are fine, although Midler is not given enough to do — or at least what’s she’s given to do veers too close to caricature than character.  Abigail Breslin and AnnaSophia Robb click as Billy’s nemesis and best friend, respectively. I was not familiar with the lead actor, Alex Lawther, although he appeared as the younger Benedict Cumberbatch/Alan Turning in “The Imitation Game.”  He’s very good, and most unusual-looking, which gives this performance a fascinating edge.
Laverne Cox, Abigail Breslin, Alex Lawther, and AnnaSophia Robb in "Freak Show."
Lawther — who is 22 — has one of those faces that one minute looks heartbreakingly young, and in the very next moment — in the same scene! — seems startlingly mature, perhaps even several decades older. So, Billy Bloom appears not simply androgynous or flamboyantly gay, but something of a shape-shifter. 

This movie means a lot to Trudie Styler.  She was bullied as a child, her own children have been bullied.  Today, with the pernicious inroads of the internet, bullying has become an even greater, more destructive issue.  And to point out that LGBT rights and issues are in danger in our current political climate, would be merely stating the obvious. 
Courtesy of Andrew Cooper
I just wish the film had been less obvious.  On the other hand, in all honesty, I am not the target audience.  “Freak Show is clearly meant to be seen by the very high-schoolers who exist, suffer and progress (well, some of them do) in the film. 

If it succeeds in its heartfelt goal to change a heart or mind, or give hope to some young person who wants to live the American ideal of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — and let their freak flag fly! — then Ms. Styler, a first-time director here, has done a very good deed in an increasingly naughty, depressingly regressive world.
THE PARTY — sponsored by Cinema Society and Bluemercury — happened at PUBLIC Hotel, where Qui Tequila cocktails were served, along with sliders, mini-pizzas and other small but tasty treats.  And despite my Patty Smyth disappointment, I did have a lovely chat with Ian Nelson, who plays “Freak Show’s”  football star, “Flip,” drawn to Billy Bloom.  Ian had high praise for director Styler, his co-star Mr. Lawther, and was grateful he didn’t really have to learn to play football.  He also told me of his next film, “Summer Night” another tale of young people navigating relationships.  It stars Justin Chatwin, Analeigh Tipton, Victoria Justice and Ellar Coltrane.

The gift bags were packed with M-61 skincare products — subtitled “Powerful Skincare.”  I asked for two. At this point, my skin needs all the power it can get.
Ian Nelson with his director Trudie Styler.
Contact Denis here.