Sundance 2024 Review

Freaky Tales Is a Wildly Stylish Ode to Hometown Heroes

Captain Marvel directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck take another swing at the superhero movie.

Originally Published: 
Pedro Pascal as Clint in Freaky Tales
Sundance Institute
Sundance Film Festival

As Hollywood inches ever closer to a more inclusive world, it gets harder to imagine anything remotely pointing to the contrary. The film industry is gradually warming to the idea that Black directors might be more qualified to helm a Black-led film; ditto for female filmmakers telling female-led stories. It’s not that white, male directors can’t tell an authentic story through a lens that’s not their own — but as we’ve seen with hits like Black Panther or Crazy Rich Asians, there’s an authenticity to those stories that the majority of mainstream cinema has largely been missing.

That’s what makes Freaky Tales such an anomaly… and such a pleasant surprise. The film is a rambunctious love letter to the late ’80s Bay Area, a region that’s teeming with history and pride. It’s the birthplace of the Black Panthers and Boots Riley. It’s home to tight-knit Asian and Hispanic communities, each with their own specific cultural impact. And it’s also a source of real affection for Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, the Berkeley-born directors helming Freaky Tales. With their names attached to the anthology, audiences might have reason to be wary. The duo’s last movie was 2019’s Captain Marvel, a Marvel film not exactly known for a sense of cultural authenticity. But as an Oakland native himself, Fleck has a lock on the region’s bombastic, scrappy style.

Freaky Tales sees him and Boden teaming up with Oakland rapper Too Short and Golden State Warrior Eric “Sleepy” Floyd, among others, to craft four interconnected (and surprisingly authentic) stories. The film reimagines the bay as a playground pulsing with a tangible energy: a hazy green aura, not unlike the radioactive ooze of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, hovers over the bay, and apparently always has. We never discover just what exactly it’s meant to represent, but it’s a fine enough stand-in for the gritty, resilient spirit of Oakland. As each tale unfolds, unlikely heroes will find unique ways to harness that weird green glow, pushing Freaky Tales into familiar territory for Fleck and Boden and inadvertently creating a new kind of superhero story.

Chapter 1 kicks off with a bombastic, winking homage to The Warriors and Bay Area punk. “The Gilman Strikes Back” follows the adventures of Tina (Ji-young Yoo) and Lucid (Jack Champion), two upstart regulars at a local music club in Berkeley. Affectionately named Gilman, this co-op runs on a curious mixture of hardcore punk and even-tempered intersectionality. Gilman is averse to sexism, racism, homophobia, or physical harm of any kind — that is, until a band of neo-Nazi skinheads descend on the club to challenge their vows of pacifism. As its title suggests, the patrons of Gilman will eventually make the choice to stand up against their oppressors. Fists will fly in delightfully pulpy fashion, cementing the trend of heightened action that Bottoms helped re-introduce last year.

Ironheart’s Dominique Thorne teams up with singer Normani Kordei in Freaky Tales’ second, and most affirming, chapter, “Don’t Fight the Feeling.” They portray the real-life rap duo Danger Zone, a pair of performers who have yet to take their talents beyond local open mic nights. When they’re hand-picked for a rap battle against Too Short (played by rapper Symba), the outspoken Barbie (Thorne) jumps at the opportunity. Entice (Kordei), however, needs to get her groove back before the big day. She’s been visibly rattled by sneering catcalls and the pervy customers that frequent her day job. (One, played by a game Ben Mendelsohn, is an effectively skeevy scene-stealer.) She’s equally wary of Too Short, convinced that he’s set up this battle solely to humiliate them. But neither Barbie nor Entice are ready to give up their dream willingly. With the help of a glowing green mic, our unlikely underdogs will find their voice, all while clapping back at some of-the-era sexism.

Chapter 3 might just be Freaky Tales’ most anticipated. “Born to Mack” sees Pedro Pascal slipping seamlessly into his wounded tough-guy persona once more. The brief here is just as gut-wrenching as his turns in The Last of Us and The Mandalorian: Pascal plays an expecting father who also just happens to be an enforcer for a shadowy kingpin known only as The Guy. When an unfinished job leads to a blindsiding tragedy, Pascal flexes the full breadth of the pathos he’s so well-known for.

For all his latent star power, however, Freaky Tales might belong the most to Jay Ellis. He’s a consistent presence across each of the film’s four chapters as Sleepy Floyd, an NBA-All-Star-turned-spokesperson for a cultish mindfulness company called Psytopics. This enterprise teaches its clients to harness the Bay Area’s glowing green energy, claiming to turn them superhuman. It all sounds like one big scam until May 10, 1987: the date of the record-shattering championship game between Floyd’s Warriors and the L.A. Lakers. Floyd scored a whopping 51 points alone, becoming a legend overnight — and in Freaky Tales, his superhuman feats don’t stop there.

Each of the titular tales reimagine the Bay Area through a delightfully fantastical lens; its subjects are as diverse, realized, and capable as any real-life figure. The bay’s green aura has turned each of our heroes into superpowered beings, with powers ranging from subtle, glowing eyes to full-on astral projection. It makes Freaky Tales an interesting complement to Fleck and Boden’s last effort, Captain Marvel, especially given their latest film’s aptitude for authenticity. Tangible production design, a charming cast, and some juicy beats by Raphael Saddiq help to ground the film’s delightful dreamscape in something much more lived-in. Thorne, Kordei, Pascal, and Yoo are particular highlights, bringing the heart to the film’s heightened historical rewrite.

While the performances are fantastic, Freaky Tales’ visual flourishes might not click with everyone. The film zigs and zags through one stylistic homage after the next, marrying the gritty pulp of Quentin Tarantino (or, more accurately, the works that inspired Tarantino) with the youthful mischief of a Linklater film. It also nods to the forgotten quirks of physical media: aspect ratios expand and contract, while Fleck and Boden recreate the haze of VHS tapes and the cue marks that punctuate old film reels. It makes Freaky Tales an interesting experiment in form, but it’s the dedicated character study that makes that experiment worthwhile.

Freakt Tales premiered Jan. 18 at the Sundance Film Festival.

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