One sign of a good movie is when it’s able to keep surprising you – whether it’s to your delight, shock, or bewilderment – and Freaky Tales fits that bill to a tee. Five years after securing the bag with the billion-dollar phenomenon of Captain Marvel in the MCU, filmmaking duo Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (also responsible for indie gems like Half Nelson, It’s Kind of a Funny Story, and Mississippi Grind) are back. The directors now return to their independent roots with a fresh and deliriously fun mix of seemingly separate stories whose whole makes for one wild crowd-pleaser.
Set and shot in Oakland, California, Freaky Tales is a self-described love letter to the Bay Area of the ‘80s, where Fleck grew up. Doused with a heightened and exaggerated B-movie vibe, Freaky Tales is comprised of four interconnected stories of different Oakland residents finding their way in the historic American city. While each tale stands strong enough on its own, the way their respective characters and ideas come together paints a multigenerational, multifaceted, and multicultural portrait of what makes the Bay Area special. This makes the case for Freaky Tales being the most inspired work from Fleck and Boden yet.
The first vignette, titled “The Gilman Strikes Back,” follows lovestruck teenage punks Tina (Ji-young Yoo) and Lucid (Jack Champion), who spend their evenings rocking out with their kinsfolk at DIY music venue Gilman Street. When their communal sanctuary falls under threat from a violent gang of Nazi skinheads, the punks have to band together and fight back in a showdown for the ages. All of Freaky Tales takes clear inspiration from Walter Hill’s The Warriors, but this opening segment is the most obvious and all the better for it.
The introduction to Gilman Street (an actual place that played a massive part in the punk revival of the late ’80s and early ’90s), shown through the eyes of Tina and Lucid as they walk into a rowdy performance by Operation Ivy, perfectly captures the aggressive yet inclusive energy of a hardcore punk show, complete with stage divers and two-steppers alike. As someone who considers themselves decently well-versed in the heavy music scene, it’s always exciting to see a film depiction get it done so right.
Freaky Tales then jumps over to the rap and hip-hop side of the Bay with its second story, “Don’t Fight the Feeling”. Young rappers Barbie (played by Dominique Thorne of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and Judas and the Black Messiah fame) and Entice (pop superstar Normani) dream of making it big as the rap duo Danger Zone but are trapped in the cycle of minimum-wage jobs and performing to extremely small crowds. When an opportunity arrives to take the mic and stage with Too $hort (played by Bay Area artist Symba), the two women have to prove to everyone, including themselves, that they have what it takes.
Much like the punk-focused plot that kicks the movie off, directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden give a stirring portrayal of another Bay Area subculture with some real credibility to back it up. A climactic rap battle scene offers some fantastically lively work from cinematographer Jac Fitzgerald, and Normani steals the show in her debut film role. Stunnaman02 also joins the cast as rapper Lenny G, shining in the small time he’s given.
Part Three, “Born to Mack”, brings in toughened and tired debt collector Clint (Pedro Pascal). He wants out of the violent nature of his work and makes the crucial movie mistake of saying that this is the Last Job, and his life quickly takes a turn for the (even) worse. Clint is in deep with his boss (Ben Mendelsohn), known as “The Guy,” and is forced to discover what kind of person he truly is, and whether or not he can ever actually find some kind of redemption and leave this life of crime behind.
Pedro Pascal delivers both a rugged and touching performance as Clint. Behind the tough exterior is a man who’s constantly hurting on the inside; forced into a life of inflicting pain while hating violence itself. Coming after the previous two energetic vignettes, Freaky Tales takes a slower, unexpected turn with “Born to Mack.” However, by the film’s end, it proves to be a necessary piece as it offers an interesting thematic contrast to the other chapters as well as a killer framing device. Much credit goes to editor Robert Komatsu as this is yet another way that Freaky Tales keeps you on your toes in one way or another before the action-packed grand finale.
Part Four, “The Legend of Sleepy Floyd”, brings the film’s 1987 setting full circle with a fictional retelling of the year’s iconic Warriors/Lakers playoff game where Eric “Sleepy” Floyd brought record-setting glory to the Bay Area. Jay Ellis (Insecure, Top Gun: Maverick) plays Floyd in one of his most effective performances to date. While it’s best not the say too much about this final chapter other than it features swordplay and Kung fu, it must be said that it’ll be hard to think of any other sequence this year that’ll top the way this one makes you want to yell out and cheer with utter joy. This segment features one of actor Angus Cloud’s (Euphoria, Your Lucky Day) final performances as well, and it’s a memorable one despite his short screen time.
Much like Oakland itself, Freaky Tales is vibrant and imbued with a distinct style. It’s made with an obvious love for its setting and its various cinema inspirations, covering everything from B-movies to animation to exploitation and more. As an awesome bonus, it offers up an exceptional soundtrack with great needle drops to boot, including Metallica, Evelyn “Champagne” King, and Public Image Ltd. The four-part semi-anthology approach miraculously pays off, with a continuing thread of cosmic green energy and a hilarious self-improvement method called Psytopics that wraps every story together. The best part of Freaky Tales is the fact that it just keeps getting better and better as it goes on.
Freaky Tales is a ton of fun with wildly fun ideas and performances. Writer-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck have made what could very well be their best film so far. It feels wholly original despite wearing its influences on its sleeves and delivers its universal underdog message in heartfelt, weird, and badass ways. I’m (not) sorry for the basketball pun – this is a slam dunk in every way.