The writer and director of Some Freaks is Ian MacAllister McDonald, but his debut feature frequently brings to mind another artist: Neil LaBute, playwright and filmmaker (In the Company of Men, Your Friends and Neighbors) whose misanthropic worldview this film frequently recalls. Perhaps that’s inevitable, though, considering LaBute is credited as an executive producer. The title of McDonald’s film even plays like a variation on a previous LaBute work, Some Girl(s), the 2006 stage play that LaBute adapted for the screen in a 2013 film directed by Daisy von Scherler Mayer.
The closest McDonald comes to distinguishing himself from LaBute is in the genuine warmth with which he depicts the initial stages of the film’s central romantic relationship. Matt (Thomas Mann) is a shy, awkward, frequently bullied high schooler who is derisively called “Cyclops” by many of his peers because of the eyepatch he is forced to wear over his damaged right eye. Jill (Lily Mae Harrington)—the cousin of Matt’s only friend, the semi-closeted homosexual Elmo (Ely Henry), who has just temporarily moved into their small Rhode Island town from the West Coast—is an insecure overweight girl who has had to adopt a more outwardly assertive stance as a result of years of verbal abuse. After a rocky start (in which, among other incidents, Jill walks in on Matt making a fat joke) Matt and Jill strike up a friendship that eventually blossoms into love, and McDonald depicts this arc with a sensitivity generally foreign to LaBute’s thuggish proclivities, the dialogue between them utterly believable in its clumsiness and talking-around-feelings subtext.
Even in this relatively amiable first half, though, there’s something troublingly LaBute-ian about McDonald’s approach to detailing this courtship. If anything, detail is what the film lacks, particularly when McDonald decides to gloss over the finer points of their process of getting to know each other by relegating their interactions to montages. We never get much of a sense of what draws Matt and Jill to each other beyond the fact that they’re both outcasts. This nagging feeling of thin motivation is especially acute in the case of Jill’s attraction to Matt, because she’s the one who makes the initial gestures Matt is too inexperienced to pick up on at first.
Inexperienced, or just too self-absorbed to notice? The more we get to know Matt in the second half of Some Freaks, the more his selfish and needy side comes to the fore, especially when, after they graduate high school and try to carry on a long-distance relationship once Jill returns to the West Coast in order to attend college, Matt reunites with her for a week and discovers she has lost weight, actively keeping up a healthy lifestyle. Suddenly, he finds himself becoming less attracted to her as a result. When he goes so far as to try to trick Jill into consuming a carton of macaroni and cheese doused with whipped cream and other such fattening ingredients, the character’s insensitivity to her desires is breathtaking in a way that screams the influence of LaBute, who has made a specialty of characters acting with extravagant nastiness to each other.
It’s not so much that these people reveal astonishing depths of cruelty, however, that’s disappointing; such inhumanity might have felt genuinely confrontational if these characters felt like flesh-and-blood human beings in the first place. But the deeper Some Freaks wades into what becomes a series of sadistic and masochistic humiliations, the more McDonald’s film begins to feel schematic, with these characters little more than pawns in a screenwriter’s game of toying with our expectations. The result is that, upon litanies of embarrassments in the film’s cross-cutting climax, McDonald appears to be ruthlessly punishing his characters rather than exercising any tough-minded compassion.
Perhaps the film’s biggest litmus test for how worthy you find Some Freaks as a provocation lies in your interpretation of McDonald’s attitude to one of the film’s supporting characters: Patrick (Lachlan Buchanan), a high school jock who harbors a secret attraction for Jill that he finally acts upon after he coincidentally ends up going to the same college she does. Everything about him, from his pretty-boy good looks to the creepily presumptuous manner with which he approaches Jill, suggests to her that he’s merely a creepy rapist-in-waiting with a possible fat-woman fetish.
Yet, Patrick’s longing gazes at Jill from afar seem so genuine that McDonald clearly wants us to question our initial assumptions about him, especially in a scene with his current, more conventionally attractive girlfriend in which he rejects her sexual advances and desperately claims that he has depths to him that no one else is willing to acknowledge. Up until that point, though, Patrick has only been seen in two or three, at most, brief and not super-enlightening scenes, which makes it mightily difficult to suddenly work up much sympathy for his frustrations. We can’t imagine any hidden depths to him because McDonald has barely offered any hints of them in the first place. It’s an encapsulation of how, just as Matt has deceived himself into believing he’s a real outsider just because he has a fake eye, Some Freaks pays mere lip service to nuance rather than actually being nuanced. That’s the Neil LaBute problem in a nutshell: reducing human experience down to a series of thesis markers, and smugly passing off its one-note nastiness as pitiless art.
Director: Ian MacAllister McDonald
Writer: Ian MacAllister McDonald
Starring: Thomas Mann, Lily Mae Harrington, Ely Henry, Lachlan Buchanan, Marin Ireland, Ryan Boudreau
Release Date: August 4, 2017
Kenji Fujishima contributes film criticism to Slant Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, The Playlist and Village Voice, in addition to Paste. When he’s not watching movies and writing and editing film criticism, he’s trying to absorb as much music, art and literature as possible. He has not infrequently been called a “culture vulture” for that reason.