Trudie Styler tackles gay teen bullying with first feature

Trudie Styler (L) and Alex Lawther, director and lead actor in "Freak Show," a film tackling the bullying of gays at school. - AFP/Deborah Cole

Trudie Styler (L) and Alex Lawther, director and lead actor in “Freak Show,” a film tackling the bullying of gays at school. – AFP/Deborah Cole


BERLIN: British actress and producer Trudie Styler is making her directorial debut at the Berlin Film Festival this week with “Freak Show”, about a gay American teen who stands up to bullying.


Styler, who has co-produced such films as “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch”, premiered the movie to sold-out audiences in the festival’s ‘Generation’ section, which showcases young adult cinema.


The film ended up being a family affair, with her daughter Eliot Sumner, who lives in Berlin and has her own music career, helping with the soundtrack and Eliot’s older sister, Mickey, playing a doctor in one scene.


Styler is married to musician Sting.


“Freak Show” tells the story of Billy Bloom (British actor Alex J. Lawther), the flamboyant son of a billionaire father and a glamorous, fun-loving mother who is played by Styler’s friend Bette Midler.


When their marriage breaks up, Billy has to leave New England for his father’s home in a Republican state in the Bible Belt, where the cheerleaders cry “Make America Great Again”.


Dressed up as gay pop icon Boy George on his first day at school, Billy runs a gauntlet of hostile jocks and popular kids but refuses to let the conformists cramp his style.


Even after he is ambushed and beaten up by a gang of football player thugs, Billy returns to school and delivers a book report performance in drag as Jazz Age heroine Zelda Fitzgerald that brings the house down.


Eventually Billy decides to challenge the school’s top “mean girl” (Abigail Breslin of “Little Miss Sunshine”) for the homecoming queen crown.


Styler, 63, lined up a series of celebrity cameos for the movie including Laverne Cox, the transgender star of “Orange is the New Black”, to play a local television reporter, and tennis great John McEnroe as the well-meaning school gym teacher.


She said she chose the script, based on a bestseller by James St. James, for her first outing as a director in part because of her own experience with bullying.


“I had a rough time at school myself,” she told AFP. “I had ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) and dyslexia and had had a pretty bad road accident when I was a child so I was very scarred on my face.”


“I was a listener to music but a lonely one,” she continued. “I didn’t belong to the popular girls or even the mean girls. But we all have sharp memories of our own high school years.”


‘Bullies as leaders’


“Freak Show” is Styler’s debut as a director of a feature film, although she has co-directed documentaries. She also recently co-starred in the television series “Empire” and is a prominent environmental campaigner.


She said she feared that the example being set by today’s political leaders was warping the attitudes of young people.


“We’re living in a more xenophobic and homophobic culture than I would suggest that we have at any time in our recent history,” Styler said.


“We want our kids to grow up to be more tolerant, more inclusive, more compassionate and so it’s a worry when we have bullies as leaders. I’m talking about Marine Le Pen, I’m talking about (Donald) Trump, I’m talking about (Vladimir) Putin, there are any number.”


She said kids needed role models to help them fit in, even if they are taken from pop culture.


“I’m married to a musician — music is a transcendent form. We all remember what we were doing to a certain song at a certain time. It evokes memory, it evokes feeling above all,” she said.


“In this movie, Eliot helped me to select some great LGBT bands to play at certain very poignant moments of the movie. In fact she’s got two of her own songs.”


The soundtrack also includes songs by Perfume Genius, Boy George and 1970s glam rockers T. Rex, a band Styler said she loved as a young woman.


The Berlin film festival runs until Sunday. – AFP/Deborah COLE