Ian MacAllister McDonald isn’t afraid to infuriate you with his characters. The plot description on IMDb for his new relationship drama SOME FREAKS says it is a charming romance. Certainly there are moments that you can’t help but smile during, as two outcasts find each other in a tempest of hate of a high school, but this is no YOU’VE GOT MAIL. Thomas Mann plays Matt, a wirey kid who is teased relentlessly for his eyepatch. When he is paired with new girl in the school Jill (Lily Mae Harrington), overweight with dyed hair, he can’t resist picking on someone else for change. But once he quits being an asshole, he realizes the two of them have more in common than anyone else in the school and they fall quickly in love. The trio of leads is completed by Elmo (Ely Henry), a boy so troubled by his own repressed sexuality he resorts to making homophobic statements whenever he gets uncomfortable.
As they escape high school for the supposedly more accepting realm of college, Matt and Jill both make a major change without telling the other one, Matt gets the glass eye and Jill loses a lot of weight. When Matt comes to visit Jill at the college, the pair of once-sidelined outsiders no longer know how to relate to each other. Jill finds herself suddenly in the sights of the super hot guy (Lachlan Buchanan as Patrick) from her high school whose friends mocked her. Elmo finally makes his move on his dream guy, who seems to be sending him mixed signals. It all comes crashing down in an excruciating conclusion, in the way only young romance can, dirty, messy and bitter.
I love the take McDonald has in this film – it is not an easy film at all, it’s not a Sundance LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE or ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL (both of which Thomas Mann acted in). These people are broken and they live in an unfair world, one that is more and more ready to judge entirely on appearance and gives bullying a free pass. These are survivors. But surviving makes you tough and hardened around the edges, it makes it hard to build an smooth connection with someone else, it gives you a bit of battle fatigue and ptsd – where even if someone is trying to relate to you, you are desperate to classify them as dangerous.
SOME FREAKS excels at placing its bottomless characters in conflict with each other and watching the friction. For a first feature, it shows remarkable courage and understanding, and a willingness to not let anyone off easy, including the audience. My one complaint is the film seems to end right at the start of the third act. Not that this was a film that needed an easy resolution with all the storylines tied up in some “Doogie Howseresque” voice over. However, there is a huge ALL IS LOST moment for each of the characters and then it just ends. Each of the trio has come to a new understanding of their life, and we don’t get to see how that plays against each other. That said, the film is a triumph, and McDonald and Harrington future stars to keep your eye on, and Mann’s agent is really guiding him to great material – with this and THE PREPPIE CONNECTION, he has put together a solid portfolio of work in 18 months.
I had a chance to chat with writer/director Ian MacAllister McDonald after the film’s world premiere at Fantasia International Film Festival.
McDonald: Matt and Jill came first. I was sitting in a park in Tribeca, waiting on a friend, when this young couple walked by. The guy was this scrawny nerd, and the girl was very curvy and dressed in punk rock attire. And I just thought they were the most beautiful, interesting looking pair– these two geeky kids who appeared totally mismatched and yet absolutely perfect for one another. And for whatever reason their image just stuck in my head and I found myself slowly beginning to make up a story about them. The script itself is kind of a goulash of personal experiences, the experiences of friends, rumors about people and parties that I’d heard but hadn’t seen, and just a general desire to tell a young love story that captured the messiness and terror of that age.
BEARS: I love the unapologetic nature of the film. These are not especially nice people, they don’t necessarily endear themselves to an audience. Tell me about crafting that balance, and expressing that to the actors.
McDonald: The goal was always to just be honest to the characters and the situation. When you’re young and dealing with first experiences (a first love, for instance), the world feels rendered in absolutes and the stakes feel incredibly high. This is especially true if you arrived late to the dating game and have spent the years leading up to it feeling like romantic relationships were somehow beyond you. So when someone says they don’t love you anymore, it’s not just a matter of losing a girlfriend/boyfriend who can be replaced, it feels like you’ve lost the one person in this world who was willing/able to love you. And that’s terrifying. And people in that situation do and say some pretty shitty things, but they’re doing it out of a sense of self-preservation. That’s something the actors and I talked a lot about. Virtually all of the characters are (self)destructive, but you can’t play a character from a place a judgement, so it was really important for all of us to figure out what positive thing was motivating some of these very negative choices.
McDonald: We reached out to all the big agencies and they submitted people who were demographically right for the roles. At the very beginning of the process, I really wanted to find a young man who really had a missing eye to play Matt. We even went so far as to contact prosthetic eye manufacturers to get a client list, but that was a dead end. What surprised me the most was that when we reached out to all the major agencies about an actress who could play Jill, they all responded that they didn’t represent a single actress in that age range, who fit that physical description. Now bear in mind, we cast this film back in 2013, so things may very well have changed since then, but that was really the moment when we all realized that this was going to be trickier than we thought.
As for how we cast Thomas, Lily, and Ely, it really just came down to how they worked together in the audition room. Thomas and Lily had this immediate chemistry– she was shoving him around and invading his space and it just felt so immediately familiar and warm. Ely came in, did a single audition, and we cast him immediately. He was just so funny and strange and charismatic. Shortly thereafter we learned that Ely and Thomas are actual buddies, which just made the choice that much more perfect.
In a more general sense, we were looking for actors who could identify with their parts on a personal level. I remember hearing a story about Mike Nichols casting The Graduate. At one point Robert Redford came into the room, auditioning for Ben. The producers just loved him, of course, but Nichols insisted that he was fundamentally wrong for the role. Everyone else was baffled, so finally, Nichols asked Redford point blank if he’d ever had trouble getting a girlfriend and Redford said “What do you mean?” And Nichols said “That’s exactly what I mean.” Which is kind of what I was looking for in the casting process.
BEARS: The first part of the film seems to identify the characters by what makes them freaks – even in the title – and then in the second half, those identities are taken away – and they struggle to understand who they are. Obviously high school is the time we reduce people to their simplest forms, but in your film, even the characters seem to take on other’s perceptions of them, and struggle to break from that cycle. How do you think the role of outsider is actually identified by others versus something we do internally?
McDonald: I think most people who’ve spent significant portions of their life at the bottom of the social ladder know that there’s no such thing as a small insult. Someone can say something shitty to you in high school, then forget about it later that day, but the person on the receiving end will remember it for years to come. And while at a certain point you really do need to just shake these things off and move on, the mental scars they leave are very real and they shape not only how you think of yourself, but also the clothes you wear, the friends you make, the way you express yourself (or if you express yourself) and how you behave.
But, of course, the trick to telling these types of stories honestly is finding a way to do it without romanticizing people simply because they’re nerds or social outcasts. You don’t have to dig through many webpages to find some really mean-spirited pop culture nerds out there, which is part of what makes this an interesting (albeit challenging) subject to write about.
BEARS: For me, the most interesting character in the film is Patrick, who is equally identified by one characteristic – his good looks – and that has forced him into equally unsatisfying relationships. Can you talk about crafting that role in the context of the film and working with the actor?
McDonald: I tend to think of Patrick as a decent guy who’s basically after the same thing as anyone else in the film– a community. It just so happens that the community that makes the most sense to him is one that requires some pretty ugly moral concessions. What’s strange is that Patrick was far and away the hardest character to cast for. Finding someone who was conventionally beautiful, but who could also give a vulnerable, soulful performance was just incredibly difficult. This is doubly important because Patrick is really only an interesting character if you sense that he feels conflicted about what he’s doing, and we saw a lot of young actors who fit the physical description but who really didn’t seem to bring that sense of moral compromise to the role. That’s really what made Lachlan stand out to me in the audition room, and I think he brought that to the film beautifully.
SOME FREAKS plays next at the Rhode Island International Film Festival, August 12th — in the state where the film was shot.