A new hero has risen in the form of eccentric teenager Billy Bloom, the character at the center of Freak Show, a film based on the award-winning cult novel by James St. James and the directorial debut of actor and activist Trudie Styler.
The film, which can be seen across most digital platforms on Friday, follows Billy (Alex J. Lawther), who once lived a fabulous life in Connecticut with his equally eccentric mother, Muv (Bette Midler). After he is shipped off to his father (Larry Pine)’s Southern mansion, his integrity is put to the test when he chooses to fight back against intolerance at an ultraconservative high school.
Produced by Styler’s production company, Maven Pictures, and Drew Barrymore’s Flower Films, Freak Show is a compelling — sometimes ironic and raw — spotlight on high school bullying. Styler exposes the trauma inflicted on those who suffer at the hands of bullies, while bringing to light the consequences both teachers and parents face as a result.
Styler was deeply connected to the story from the beginning, having been bullied in school herself due to a facial scar she received as a toddler after being hit by a truck.
“[The kids] called me ‘Scarface,’” she tells The Advocate. “I felt myself as a loser as a child and teenager. And the corridors of school were shaming. You had to get from one class to another, traversing a hallway, and the students would be lined up left and right, watching everyone walk by, scrutinizing. It was like a catwalk.”
It was destiny, Styler explains, that she became attached to direct this film. Originally her role was as producer — that is, until they lost their original director due to unforeseen circumstances. After meeting with James St. James several times to discuss the vision, it became clear this was a story she was meant to tell. And it’s evident onscreen.
“He is such an extraordinary man — so talented. And a really good writer. I was thrilled it came to me,” she says of St. James, whom she first met in the early 2000s when she was shortlisted to play Macaulay Culkin’s mother in Party Monster, another film adapted from a St. James book. “The wonderful thing about Freak Show is that everyone pitched in. The writers didn’t leave my side. We were working on it constantly.”
Styler used her own high school experience in the corridors as a springboard to shoot one of the film’s most poetic scenes: when Billy gets beaten up. While she wanted the scene to be heart wrenching and aggressive, Styler says she did not want it to be violent but rather to have a visual “almost like a danse macabre” and for it to be full of “kinetic energy,” with the corridors to seemingly have their own personalities.
With his closet of extravagant and flamboyant attire, Billy is completely different from the cheerleaders, Bible belles, and beefy quarterbacks at his new high school. Yet despite the well-meant advice of his father and his housekeeper, Florence (Celia Weston), for him to just “throw on some blue jeans,” Billy is determined to be himself — even if that means wearing face glitter to school.
Styler has been married to legendary singer, Sting, for 25 years. Together, they have been staunch advocates for environmental legislation and have continued to champion the rights of indigenous people. Freak Show acts as a lighthouse for parents, and Styler hopes it will be a call for action to bring forth serious change in the world.
“I think adults — no matter what gender, creed, or race — can all learn,” the mother of four says. “We’re given a life where all people should be born free to be themselves, to be able to express themselves as the people they are. We’re at a point in our evolution where we have everything to do everything good — to do good work, to be inclusive, to be compassionate, to be tolerant — and yet the world seems to be pushing against all those things we have at our fingertips. We seem to be intent on destruction and pushing to the right, in wanting people to have less, and not sharing.”
Styler also points to the Trump administration as an example of a bully’s impact. “Look at this administration,” she says. “It’s repealing all the things Obama has put in place. We have to ask ourselves, ‘What is it that we’ve done that’s created this world? How can we go on? What can we teach our kids, and how can we do things better?’ I think the only way is that we all have to stand together, be together, and come together. Treat each other better.”
“These examples have to begin, surely, in our places of education,” she adds. “If schools take a strong stance on inclusivity and really deal with bullying in a very substantial way, that’s the only way we can go forward into the workplace and know that bullying is not civilized human behavior. It’s unacceptable.”