Before the early-morning Sundance premiere of Freaky Tales, one of the festival’s programmers introduced the movie as an explosive, crazy ride that would surely wake an under-caffeinated audience. That same sentiment was shared moments later in the opening frames, promising that Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Oakland-based 1980s mosaic would be a “hella wild” ride. Like the common trope of freeze-frame narration that begins in media res, it’s a bold choice to tell––instead of show––your audience what they’re about to get into. 

And what do you get into with Freaky Tales? Unfortunately, something clever, self-satisfied, and much sleepier than its predetermined adrenaline rush. Its filmmakers made their first splash at Sundance with Half Nelson in 2006, eventually compounding their indie success through sensitive (It’s Kind of a Funny Story) and smart (Mississippi Grind) features that showcased their writing skills and casting decisions. Their mainstream outlier Captain Marvel likely inspired their return to more nimble filmmaking, but Freaky Tales suggests an under-written misfire. In this collage of four intersecting stories, Boden and Fleck throw a lot at the wall and hope it drips into something coherent. Incorporating sci-fi elements and animation with a hip-hop, punk, and classic rock-inspired soundtrack, Freaky Tales wants the verve of Pulp Fiction but seems to have been reverse-engineered from its structural conceit. 

The movie is set in the Bay Area circa 1987, starting specifically at a movie theater where a few storylines begin their initial overlap. The chaptered mosaic starts with a few friends (namely, Jack Champion and Ji-young Yoo), part of a punk collective, who end up in a turf war with a horde of local Nazis. Other threads include two young rap artists (an impressive debut from Normani and Dominique Thorne) who enter a battle with Too Short, the movie’s own narrator, who gives a brief history of Oakland and the mysterious green glow that has infected the city and its residents. The last two chapters are more blunt. One features Pedro Pascal as a hired killer with a pregnant wife looking to get revenge against his heartless boss (an over-the-top Ben Mendelsohn). The other features Jay Ellis as Golden State Warrior Sleepy Floyd, who promotes a spiritual learning center called Psytopics, then aims for payback against the skinheads that targeted his home and material possessions during a robbery. 

Most of these individual narratives feature a variety of group-based brawls that feel lifted from a few specific references. In the midst of depicting a Nazi mob attack, Boden and Fleck capture the uniquely armed punk rockers with a slow-motion choreography that resembles the street fight of Anchorman with Scott Pilgrim flashes of animated onomatopoeia. After putting up a career performance against the Lakers, Sleepy Floyd then crashes a Nazi house party and turns it into the House of Blue Leaves (he even dresses in a bright yellow leather vest to hammer home the comparison), where Ellis shows off his samurai-sword skills as he slices white supremacists to the beat EB-40. It’s the most electric set piece of the movie, perhaps product of the filmmakers’ Marvel stunt experiences. 

All of this violence is supposed to feel righteous. After all, Freaky Tales is really a collection of underdog tales, a point underlined in a video store scene that Boden and Fleck can’t seem to shake since highlighting a Blockbuster in Captain Marvel. But the characters here are half-baked, archetypes meant to fit into this semi-supernatural mystery box without the cathartic release that defeating various hate-groups should have. The movie wants its Rocky moment, a reference that a special cameo makes, but each small, diverse distillation of the city struggles to get off the ropes. The “hella wild” ride ends up mostly lethargic. 

Freaky Tales premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Film Festival.

Grade: C-

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