We Are The Freaks review

A British teen comedy - set in Birmingham in 1990 - with a surprisingly political bent, according to Andrew

When you’re watching The Inbetweeners, do you ever wish the visuals could be a bit more dreamlike? That characters would ignore the fourth wall as if it wasn’t a big deal and that the whole thing could have a political subtext and an early-90s soundtrack? And be set in Birmingham?

Neither do I. Why would we, when We Are The Freaks does all of the above so well?

Set at the end of Margaret Thatcher’s reign as supreme overlord of Englandland and its various appendages, We Are The Freaks sets out its stall early. It knows what kind of film it is, and with its complete disregard for verisimilitude manages to provide the most successful representation of male teenagers I’ve seen at this festival. The cold wit, the boredom, the simmering rage at basically everything, the casual cruelty, it’s all there. I wonder if it will appeal to teenagers though, purely because it is attempting to make itself distinct from the usual coming-of-age flick, even if the backdrop of yesteryear still has pertinence. The resolution is specifically about the lack of progress in its lead character’s life. It’s not only funny, sick, and as wrong as teenage boys can be, but it’s also got a lot of anger bubbling under its surface.

Jamie Blackley (who, at the time of writing, had just won an acting award for uwantme2killhim? and is definitely worth keeping an eye on) plays Jack, an Angry Young Man who reads Bukowski and wants to become a writer. He lives on an estate with his disabled mum and his sister, and has been accepted to Bolton University for a creative writing course. He receives a letter at the start of the film that will tell him if he’s been accepted for funding, but does not open it immediately. He fancies Elinor (Amber Anderson, who you may recall from Black Mirror but will definitely recognise from the insufferable ‘I like old movies/like the Godfather fwee…’ dating agency adverts), a porcelain cellist destined for Cambridge University.

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The story takes its time setting things up, but writer/director Justin Edgar makes this prelude entertaining with a gleeful irreverence (this might annoy some people, but I’m not one of them) delivered with deadpan apathy. Characters are introduced in surreal and unusual ways, playing with the medium because, after all, it’s a film. Why not have fun with the possibilities that this entails? Having said that, once the plot kicks off it’s largely a straightforward narrative without as many stylistic flourishes, where perhaps the occasional lurch into weirdness would be welcome.

Once established, the titular freaks consist of working class Jack, his uptight middle-class friend Parsons (Skins‘ Mike Bailey) and aimless-rich-kid Chunks (Sean Teale, also of Skins, and not the former Aston Villa centre-back). Blackley plays Jack with an impassive quality, an expression that suggests continuous thought, though on occasion the mask slips momentarily. Teale has fun with his character, though is best in awkward moments when he’s reminded of his background. Bailey, who is pretty much going to remind everyone of Ron Weasley in this, is effortlessly natural and great at being put upon, generating a lot of sympathy. Despite their different backgrounds, you can see why these three are friends. Even if We Are the Freaks is an awkward title, the delivery of it in the script is quite low-key and neatly explains this group: they’re only friends because they don’t fit in with any other clique. As a result, we barely see any other cliques.

The story ensues. There is a drug dealer (Michael Smiley, who must cameo in everything now by law). There is a homage to Oldboy. There is a party. There is an annoying little brother to look after. There is a scene that reminded me of what happens to John Hurt in Alien. There’s awkwardness, some evocatively blissed-out soundscapes, and young men being offensive to each other. The romance subplot sees Jack slightly awkward and uncertain next to a woman he puts on a pedestal, as they drive around the city on their way to a rave.

Birmingham, with its background orange glow, is captured in all its knackered, ‘grey was the only colour we could afford in the 60s’ glory. The cinematography feels like it’s making a point, taking a city notorious for its lack of glamour and making it look like a million cents. And of course, it’s a part of the country with a famous industrial heritage. Thatcher’s legacy pervades, even to the point of being fetishised in a sexual context.

Oh yeah. It goes there.

Setting the film in 1990 gives the film a not-totally-subtle undercurrent of social commentary. Of the three main characters, Jack is the only one who seems to know what he wants. He is bored in his work, and wants to take the next step of higher education as a step on the ladder to greater things. However, he’s reliant on grants. Despite seeing money wasted by richer friends, he’s able to see things from their perspective and so there’s sympathy, rather than unreconstructed rage, at the privileged. It’s quite a depressing open-ended conclusion, but all the interpretations I can think of are fairly bleak, for example: You work hard, you become a success, you have kids, and then… they’re like Chunks.

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The final line of the film is provocative, possibly alienating to some viewers, but its got its own shuriken-like cleverness; it covers Jack’s future education, highlights the political content distancing it from other teen movies, underlines the film’s message about social mobility, and implies that even if none of the three believe their own bullshit anymore, their façades are still there.

While it might rub some people up the wrong way with its approach, We Are The Freaks is certainly distinguished. I certainly can’t imagine American Pie 5 will have a barren ending that indictes U.S. foreign policy.

We Are The Freaks played at the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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4 out of 5