Underdog stories are beloved for a reason. And “Freaky Tales,” the latest movie from directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, gives us a host of underdogs to root for, along with a bloody, fun, very ‘80s time on the weirder side of Oakland, California.
Based on imaginary ideas and memories from Fleck, Freaky Tales is imbued with love for its underdogs, the Bay Area, and movies in general, split into several chapters that chronicle punks, musicians, and people looking for redemption.
Taking its time setting up its characters’ worlds and showing how they are all connected in the end, the stories unfold in the Bay Area in 1987, where everyday life plays out and people live with a mysterious green hue that colors their lives. It’s a time and place that anchors the movie in an affectionate specificity, giving it a deep warmth. Clearly made by and for folks with a connection to Oakland, the film even incorporates real-life Bay Area legends, both as characters and in cameos, underscoring the deep affection for the city.
First, in “The Gilman Strikes Back,” we meet a group of punks defending their local venue from a hoard of Nazis that terrorize them regularly. After one punishing incident, they realize they have to fight back. Two of these punks are Tina (Ji-young Yoo) and Lucid (Jack Champion). We follow Tina and Lucid as they gear up and train for the biggest fight of their lives, but we also follow their tender, sweet romance. To the film’s testament, their romance never feels forced or takes away from the point of the first chapter: that love and resistance can go hand in hand.
“Don’t Fight the Feeling,” the second chapter, tells the story of Barbie (Dominique Thorne) and Entice (Normani), friends who have dreams of making their rap duo Danger Zone go big. We catch a glimpse of what the pair has to endure every day as Black women: they get harassed by an awful cop and aren’t taken seriously by their artistic peers. Thankfully, though, Danger Zone can more than hold their own, and the pair proves themselves to be not only capable but incredible. The performances here are worth noting, especially Normani in her film acting debut, bringing a self-assured, determined sensibility that anchors Entice. Thorne is also great here as Barbie, underscoring the pair’s badassery. This is also one of the chapters that depict real-life Bay Area legends — Danger Zone and Too Short.
Redemption makes up a good chunk of chapter 3, “Born to Mack,” the story of Clint, a grieving hitman (Pedro Pascal) who’s just lost everything. We follow Clint as he tries to follow through on his last job before going straight, but things take a turn for the worst. “Born to Mack” revels in the pathos of 1980s tough guy cinema, and it works. This is largely thanks to Pascal’s reliable, committed performance — in Clint, he finds a way to deepen the character beyond what is on the page. Clint can fit in comfortably among the array of characters Pascal has played, from Joel in “The Last of Us” to “The Mandalorian,” but thanks to his choices (a carefully placed pause here, a clever retort there), Clint becomes his own person and moves beyond an archetype.
Finally, in “The Legend of Sleepy Floyd,” we get to spend time with another Bay Area legend, former Warriors All-Star Eric Augustus “Sleepy” Floyd (Jay Ellis). This chapter takes the former basketball player and elevates him to the status of superhuman. Earlier in the film, we see Sleepy Floyd promoting a way to harness energy, and eventually, we see him use this skill in full force. The former Warriors player takes revenge after a heist gone wrong at his home, and what ensues is a Bruce Lee-style bloodbath. Ellis does a phenomenal job here, working through intense fight choreography and delivering iconic, gory blows to his enemies. The final shades of the revenge sequence fly by and deliver delightfully unhinged amounts of blood and splatter that any fan of 1980s schlock would appreciate.
“Freaky Tales” is a great time that knows how to channel its many loves (of the Bay Area, of movies) into an infectious force. Come for the campy, bloody fun but stay for the clear love for the mediums it’s working in: Movies and memory.
“Freaky Tales” is a sales title at Sundance.
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