After cutting their teeth on decidedly indie fare like Half Nelson and Mississippi Grind, directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden graduated to the MCU, helming 2019’s Captain Marvel, a box office mega hit that grossed more than $1 billion worldwide. With success of that caliber, it would have been relatively easy for Fleck and Boden to stick with studio tentpoles, but instead they’ve gone back to their roots, returning to the Sundance Film Festival with Freaky Tales, a genre-defying anthology set in 1987 Oakland.
The film unfolds over four loosely connected chapters, each narrated by hip-hop legend and Bay Area resident Too $hort. The first centers on the patrons of a punk rock club, led by Ji-Young Yoo and Jack Champion, banding together to defend their haven after a violent group of skinheads roughs up members of the crowd. Donning spiked bracelets and brandishing makeshift weapons, the punks are ready to stand their ground, and the ultra-violent showdown will be immensely satisfying for anyone that enjoys seeing neo-Nazis get the absolute shit beaten out of them.
Chapter Two finds aspiring rappers Barbie (Dominique Thorne) and Entice (Normani), better known as the duo Danger Zone, fending off advances from a sleazy cop (Ben Mendelsohn) and gearing up for what could be their breakout opportunity: a rap battle with Too $hort (portrayed by Symba, although the real rap star makes a brief cameo as well). The climactic, crowd-pleasing showdown is an adaptation of $hort’s “Don’t Fight the Feeling,” which appeared on his double-platinum release Life Is… Too $hort.
Subsequent chapters find Pedro Pascal as an underworld debt collector trying to turn over a new leaf, and Jay Ellis as NBA All-Star Eric “Sleepy” Floyd, best known for his record-setting score against the Lakers in Game 4 of the 1987 Western Conference Semifinals. Here, Sleepy is reimagined as a katana-wielding vengeance machine, slicing his way through a house full of baddies that deserve every inch of his ire, and then some. With Sleepy’s brightly colored tracksuit and the dizzying amount of bloodshed, it’s easy to draw parallels with Uma Thurman taking on the Crazy 88 in Kill Bill, but the Tarantino influence doesn’t stop there; the film’s non-linear storytelling and interconnected events feel heavily inspired by Pulp Fiction.
Freaky Tales plays like a love letter to both the city of Oakland and the genre films that permeated video store shelves in the late 80s and early 90s. With huge tonal shifts and numerous stylistic flourishes, Fleck and Boden’s zany approach may be too off-putting for mainstream audiences, but the cast is stellar (and completely committed), the soundtrack is a perfect fit for the era, and Freaky Tales feels perfectly calibrated for the midnight movie crowd.
Find more of our Sundance 2024 coverage at this link.