Jess Weixler and Adam Pearson, who lives with neurofibromatosis, in a scene from “Chained for Life.” (Kino Lorber)

Jess Weixler and Adam Pearson, who lives with neurofibromatosis, in a scene from “Chained for Life.” (Kino Lorber)

‘Chained for Life’ confronts notions of beauty and difference

This indie, about a beautiful woman making a film with sideshow performers, recalls the 1932 classic “Freaks.”

This new indie never gets around to explaining its title, but “Chained for Life” shares its moniker with a tawdry movie from 1952.

I saw that old film once at some kind of college “bad cinema” night. The ‘52 “Chained for Life” was made as a cheapo exploitation picture featuring Daisy and Violet Hilton, longtime sideshow performers and conjoined twins. It was unintentionally funny and yet oddly sad.

There are Siamese twins in this new movie, too. But the similarities end there; writer-director Aaron Schimberg’s film is handsome, witty and at times very meta about itself.

We’re on the shooting location for a film called “God’s Mistakes,” starring a picture-perfect actress named Mabel (the excellent Jess Weixler). A pompous German director (former child star Charlie Korsmo), who might not even be German, lords it over this arty project.

The story of the film-within-a-film has something to do with a mad doctor and a plan to cure flawed people. The unusual actors hired for the shoot include Siamese twins, a giant, a little person and a hermaphrodite. Chief among this group is Rosenthal, a man with disfiguring facial tumors.

He’s played by Adam Pearson, who lives with neurofibromatosis. You might remember Pearson from his memorable appearance in “Under the Skin,” as one of Scarlett Johansson’s pickups.

Pearson radiates personality and humor, and his presence lifts the movie into interesting territory. The camera does not shy away from his features, but presents them in full, tolerant light. This is one case where “looking” becomes a normalizing process.

Mabel and Rosenthal work out an empathetic relationship. Jess Weixler, who has been threatening to break through for over a decade now, brings just the right mix of sincerity and naivete to her performance.

Schimberg keeps making references to Tod Browning’s classic 1932 film “Freaks,” in which actual circus performers were employed. That movie made audiences confront notions of beauty and difference in a startling way; the beautiful people exhibited ugly behavior, and we ended up rooting for the “freaks.”

When “Freaks” was made at glamorous MGM, the sideshow cast had to have lunch in a separate part of the studio commissary, because other people complained. That gets a pointed reference in “Chained for Life,” when the misfits are forced to sleep in a spooky abandoned hospital, instead of bunking at a local hotel.

Along with its surprises, “Chained for Life” is notable for skewering the pretensions of moviemakers, which it does with glee. There’s a ridiculous bit about Orson Welles and the Muppets that can be cherished even by non-film buffs — a good sign that the movie’s humor is working.

“Chained for Life” (3 stars)

A picture-perfect actress (the excellent Jess Weixler) makes a film with a cast of sideshow performers, led by a disfigured man (Adam Pearson, who lives with neurofibromatosis). This witty look at the filmmaking process gets into ideas about beauty and difference, and has a lot of references to the classic horror movie “Freaks.”

Rating: Not rated; probably R for nudity, subject matter

Opening Friday: SIFF Cinema Center, Seattle

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