When an independent director is swallowed up into the blockbuster machine, there’s usually two paths for them. Either they stay in the machine or are never heard from again. It’s Kind of a Funny Story and Mississippi Grind directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck seemed destined for the latter after directing Captain Marvel when they didn’t return for the sequel or immediately announce a new project. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Premiering at Sundance 2024, their latest film, Freaky Tales, is completely unlike any film they’ve made before.
An anthology film of sorts set in Fleck’s hometown of Oakland in 1987, Freaky Tales is inspired by the aesthetic of ’80s Oakland but wholly original in execution. Filled with familiar faces, including Pedro Pascal, Normani, Ben Mendelsohn, Dominique Thorne, and Angus Cloud in one of his final roles, Freaky Tales marries pulp genre storytelling with real Oakland history. The result is, frankly, one of the most outwardly fun movies I’ve seen in years.
Freaky Tales is four great stories for the price of one
1987. Oakland. A series of bizarre storms leads to the spread of a mysterious green energy that some learn to harness for great personal benefit. It’s against this backdrop that four distinct stories of outsiders come to intersect. The first follows two punks (played by Jack Champion and Ji-young Yoo) who rally their local community to fight off a group of Nazis.
The second centers on aspiring musicians Danger Zone, consisting of Entice (Normani) and Barbie (Dominique Thorne), getting the opportunity to participate in a potential career changing rap battle. Pedro Pascal stars as a fixer pulled out of retirement by an unthinkable tragedy in the third story. Finally, the fourth story tells the tale of real-life basketball player Sleepy Floyd (Jay Ellis), who unleashes his inner power to defeat the forces that have been plaguing the protagonists of all four stories.
Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s screenplay is adrenaline right to the veins. Freaky Tales maintains a rowdy, hilarious, and unpredictable vibe throughout. Each segment gives a different flavor of genre fiction that explores a different type of outsider.
Nevertheless, there’s a running thread of these underdogs standing up to Nazis and the powers that be. The main villain, police office/crime kingpin The Guy (Ben Mendelsohn), is a representation of oppression of the bright downtrodden, and the movie is basically one long wind-up for a revenge punch from the people of Oakland.
More Pulp Fiction than V/H/S, Freaky Tales is really one big story of an idealized version of Oakland from the eyes of its filmmakers. The attention to detail in its interweaving of actual historical events: a legendary game from Sleepy Floyd and a recreation of a rap battle between Danger Zone and rapper Too $hort, who narrates and executive produces the film, come to mind. It makes Oakland take on a mythic status. This is the type of movie that only someone with a deep love for their city could’ve made.
Pedro Pascal leads a cast of fresh faces
Freaky Tales is chock-full of talent, both fresh-faced and established. The biggest veterans, Pedro Pascal and Ben Mendelsohn, of course do excellent work. Hell, it’s rare to see either in the form they’re in here. Pascal plays a dead-eyed badass consumed with making sure the people who hurt those closest to him pay. With a single-mind focus, the versatile Pascal could easily have a career playing these kinds of onscreen anti-heroes.
Mendelsohn relishes the opportunity of playing a truly despicable villain. His over-the-top, sneering arch nature marked by bigotry is played mostly for laughs, indicating the weak man he is underneath.
On the other hand, the young talent blew me away. Jack Champion may not have been everyone’s cup of tea as Spider in Avatar: The Way of Water, but his charming chemistry with Ji-young Yoo’s spunky, headstrong punk Tina indicates there’s something to both of them as up-and-coming young actors.
Dominique Thorne and Normani’s portrayal of Danger Zone electrifies, commanding the screen with confidence and verve. The late Angus Cloud deserves a shout-out for his characteristically natural performance as one of The Guy’s henchmen, but the performance people will walk away from Freaky Tales raving about is Jay Ellis as Sleepy Floyd. In his mission to take down those terrorizing Oakland, he becomes something of an epic figure, one that Ellis’ very physical, ferocious performance is 100% responsible for.
Freaky Tales is cult classic material
Would Freaky Tales work, though, without the audiovisual magic that marks it? Possibly, yet it wouldn’t be the same movie. Cinematographer Jac Fitzgerald glazes the movie in tasteful film grain, and the style doesn’t stop there. Freaky Tales presents its first segment in 4:3; combined with sketchbook-like animations that add a comic effect reminiscent of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. The neon of the nightclub in segment 2 and the more restrained look of the third segment are great in their own right. My personal favorite would have to be the concluding segment’s jump into full-on gory grindhouse action.
Each segment is accented with music ranging from rap, including Too $hort, to metal. An inspired Metallica needle-drop had the audience bobbing their head. Moreover, the subtle inclusion of green energy throughout adds to the world Freaky Tales is building. And what a world it is!
Freaky Tales feels like a fresh start for Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck, a wild genre extravaganza that’s equal parts tribute to 1987 Oakland and a major good time on its own. Even if it doesn’t hit audiences the way it hit me, it has cult classic material written all over it.
Learn more about the films shown during Sundance 2024 at the official website. Please be on the lookout for more of my coverage of this year’s Sundance Film Festival coming soon to The Cosmic Circus!