Determined to show his bullies that their abuse can't stifle his identity, Freak Show's proudly queer protagonist, Billy Bloom (Alex Lawthe), decides to run for homecoming queen. And while the new movie's depiction of bullying will feel painfully familiar to anyone who dared to be different in high school, the film, out now, also strikes an uncomfortably familiar note about living under Donald Trump's current administration. Particularly when, taking a stand against Billy, Christian fundamentalist mean girl, Lynette (Abigail Breslin) makes a plea for why she's the only viable competitor for the crown, by arguing, "let's make America great again."
Speaking to Bustle, director Trudie Styler revealed that Freak Show's references to Trump were intentional, but what she didn't realize while making the movie in 2015 was that its themes would take on a whole new significance upon release. "When we made the film, Trump was barely the Republican candidate, much less the president," Styler says when we chat over the phone. "So, we nicked that line that he kept on spouting on the campaign trail as the Republican candidate never thinking in a million years that this man would be president."
There's a lot more about Freak Show that resonates in today's political world, too. "We have Lynette, this extremely fundamentalist Christian against abortion, against women’s rights, and now we have a homophobic president," says Styler. "So all the themes that we explored in the story of Freak Show are actually playing out. We have a case of art imitating life."
Freak Show's fictional bullies might make for a grim reflection of the current US government, but Billy's passionate conviction to stand up to them offers a powerful counterbalance to it. It reflects the continued activism of the LGBTQ community against a government who has openly, and repeatedly, disavowed their rights to be and to love whoever they want to. Billy is attacked in physical and emotional ways in Freak Show, but he never allows for the abuse to diminish his identity. Instead of becoming "more wrangler," and "less fabulous," as he's advised at one point, he refuses to compromise who he is in order to appease the bigotry of others.
That's a positive message for people of any age to embrace for themselves, but it feels like an especially important one for teenagers to understand. "It can be a very, very painful time," Styler says about the universal torment of adolescence. "The human body is saying, 'you have to leave your safe environment and become an adult," but boy, do high schools make it hard for you. Because you don’t want the spotlight, you want to be able to figure out who you are. Especially if you’re a non-conformist. That applies to the queer world, but it also applies to anybody who dares to think differently, wear differently, or believe in a different god."
Having experienced what she calls "somewhat of a difficult early childhood," following a car accident that left her with "very vivid scars," on her face and "only a little bit of an eyebrow," Styler understands the hardship of growing up looking different. That's obviously a major theme in Freak Show, which is the actor and producer's directorial debut, but Styler is also a clear champion for outsiders in other aspects of her career too. As well as being an ardent protector of the rainforest, UNICEF ambassador, and outspoken human rights activist, she is also a movie producer pushing boundaries in Hollywood.
Her first production company, Xingu, for example, was set up to help finance first time writers and directors for critically acclaimed independent movies like Moon and Lock Stock And Two Smoking Barrels. And in 2011, Styler set up Maven Pictures with Celine Rattray, with an aim to platform the talent of women in movies. "We wanted to open our doors up to women because we need to move the needle," Styler says. "I’m happy to have moved the needle a tiny bit by becoming one of the 5 percent who work as directors and one of the 25 percent of producers," but she also understands that there's a great deal more work left to be done in order to inspire real change in Hollywood.
We need to tell universal stories that really reflect the world that we live in. And we certainly need to have more women in front of the camera and behind the camera. More actors who are female and more diversity. Telling stories that just reflect the world that we live in. We cannot talk in terms of ‘minorities’ because when you look in a room full of people, you’ll see people who are from many different religions, many different backgrounds, and who express themselves in many different ways to do with their gender.
Styler also remains hopeful that the current post-Weinstein climate of the movie industry may quickly inspire change, "we need to harness this energy that can come out of this shadow time of bullying that we’ve seen in these rape cases," Styler says, "and the women who have come forward about [them] — this is a time where women should be taking the lead in more areas of filmmaking... and in all [male dominated] workplaces."
We're living in an age of bullying, with examples of it happening at the highest levels that you could possibly imagine. What Freak Show posits, however, is the power of uniting as a community in order to stand strong against bigotry and harassment in all of it's forms. It's a movie that suggests being bold instead of concealing your truth, and being loud when threatened with silence. Most importantly, perhaps, Freak Show serves the reminder that the best way to make America great again, is to challenge bullies and oppression at every turn. And to maybe even maintain a "pro-glamour" stance while you do so.
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