The opening night spot at Sundance has often brought more bad luck than good, with many films being judged solely on one night and then fading into obscurity. Remember Emilia Clarke and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s sci-fi comedy, The Pod Generation? Or the Michelle Williams and Julianne Moore drama, After the Wedding? What about Daisy Ridley’s film about suicide, Sometimes I Think About Dying? And let’s not forget the sequel to An Inconvenient Truth that flew under the radar. This year’s sacrificial offering, the 80s-themed anthology Freaky Tales, is confident in its ability to make a lasting impact and promises to be a memorable experience.
Presenting itself as its own cheerleader, the movie kicks off with a voiceover introduction that sets the stage for what is promised to be an incredibly exhilarating experience. This promise had already been hyped up during the film’s opening, eagerly marketed to us as something that would leave certain viewers speechless. However, the creators of the film – writer-director duo Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck – may believe that they have crafted a new cult classic, but it’s difficult to share in their enthusiastic attitude. Eye-rolling exhaustion sets in as they insist that this is a film to be quoted, rewatched, and adored. Despite Boden and Fleck’s bold claims about Freaky Tales, it ultimately falls short, feeling like a mishmash of recycled ideas that have been done better before. It comes across as a subpar imitation of Tarantino’s style, with loosely connected stories that would have fit better in the late 90s when aspiring American indie filmmakers were trying to emulate their newly beloved icon.
We are transported to the year 1987 and immersed in the vibrant yet tense city of Oakland, California. We learn about a luminous green substance that has an unusual impact on those who come across it. We witness a group of rebels taking on a group of Nazis (led by Jack Champion from Scream 7 and newcomer Ji-young Yoo from Expats), two female rappers battling it out (with an acting debut from Normani and Dominique Thorne from Wakanda Forever, who gives a standout performance), a hitman working for debt collectors who turns against his employers (played by the popular Pedro Pascal and Ben Mendelsohn, although the latter’s performance is over-the-top), and an NBA star fighting back against the criminals who have targeted his life (portrayed by Jay Ellis from Insecure). While each story is presented as a separate and titled tale, they often overlap with the common theme of the underdog. However, what should be a satisfying triumph – with skinheads, racists, misogynists, homophobes, and killers getting their comeuppance, sometimes violently – is hindered by Boden and Fleck’s inability to give us a satisfying conclusion. The battles, whether they are fought with words or actions, are all poorly executed and rushed, involving characters we know little about and events we do not truly care about. Instead of cheers, we are left with shrugs.
In 2006, Boden and Fleck debuted at Sundance with the impactful and convincing film, Half Nelson, starring Ryan Gosling. However, their career has been inconsistent since then. They have had successes, such as the moving baseball story Sugar, but also disappointments, like the lackluster Captain Marvel. Freaky Tales appears to be a reaction to the tedious work of being part of the MCU and holds personal significance for the duo. However, it ultimately comes across as a self-indulgent project meant only for themselves, rather than for a wider audience. The film’s nostalgia is presented through a series of lists, simply for the sake of name-dropping 80s movies. This reaches its peak in an awkward scene at a video store, featuring a random A-list cameo listing off the best underdog films of all time. The same can be said for the soundtrack, which is filled with recognizable songs that aim to elicit a “I know that too” response from viewers, rather than adding depth to the story.
The film’s plot is disorganized but self-satisfied, like a puzzle box assembled by people more concerned with its appearance than its contents (a double feature with Saltburn is in store!). There is an excessive use of unnecessary visual tricks (such as an animated baseball sequence and aspect ratio changes, and representing the characters’ thoughts as doodles), but overall the film is well-made and shows that the duo have grown as successful commercial filmmakers post-Marvel. The final bloody scene is well-choreographed but feels too much like a parody to be memorable. Similar to the rest of the film, it seems inspired by a graphic novel, making it an odd and awkward companion to Captain Marvel. Is this their attempt to have the fun they wanted from that project, but on their own terms? Perhaps. However, for a film that was clearly meant to be entertaining above all else, it ends up being a strange and tiresome experience. While I’m glad they had a good time making it, it’s a shame that we couldn’t have shared in the enjoyment.
Freaky Tales is showing at the Sundance film festival and is seeking distribution