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

Talk to us

> Give us your news tips.

> Send us a letter to the editor.

> More Herald contact information.

More in Life

Camp Fire attendees pose after playing in the water. (Photo courtesy by Camp Fire)
The best childcare in Snohomish County

You voted, we tallied. Here are the results.

Mukilteo Police Chief Andy Illyn and the graphic he created. He is currently attending the 10-week FBI National Academy in Quantico, Virginia. (Photo provided by Andy Illyn)
Help wanted: Unicorns for ‘pure magic’ career with Mukilteo police

“There’s a whole population who would be amazing police officers” but never considered it, the police chief said.

To most, tiles are utilitarian. To some, they’re a sought-after art form.

Collectors particularly prize tiles made by early 20th century art potteries. This Wheatley piece sold for $216 at auction.

Spring plant sales in Snohomish County

Find perennials, vegetable starts, shrubs and more at these sales, which raise money for horticulture scholarships.

beautiful colors of rhododendron flowers
With its big, bright blooms, Washington’s state flower is wowing once again

Whether dwarf or absolutely ginormous, rhodies put on a grand show each spring. Plus, they love the Pacific Northwest.

Whidbey duo uses fencing to teach self-discipline, sportsmanship to youth

Bob Tearse and Joseph Kleinman are sharing their sword-fighting expertise with young people on south Whidbey Island.

Craig Chambers takes orders while working behind the bar at Obsidian Beer Hall on Friday, April 12, 2024, in downtown Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Obsidian Beer Hall takes over former Toggle’s space in downtown Everett

Beyond beer, the Black-owned taphouse boasts a chill vibe with plush sofas, art on the walls and hip-hop on the speakers.

Glimpse the ancient past in northeast England

Hadrian’s Wall stretches 73 miles across the isle. It’s still one of England’s most thought-provoking sights.

I accidentally paid twice for my hotel. Can I get a refund?

Why did Valeska Wehr pay twice for her stay at a Marriott property in Boston? And why won’t Booking.com help her?

How do you want your kids to remember you when they grow up?

Childhood flies by, especially for parents. So how should we approach this limited time while our kids are still kids?

Dalton Dover performs during the 2023 CMA Fest on Friday, June 9, 2023, at the Spotify House in Nashville, Tenn. (Photo by Amy Harris/Invision/AP)
Music, theater and more: What’s happening in Snohomish County

The Red Hot Chili Pipers come to Edmonds, and country artist Dalton Dover performs Friday as part of the Everett Stampede.

Lily Gladstone poses at the premiere of the Hulu miniseries "Under the Bridge" at the DGA Theatre, Monday, April 15, 2024, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)
Mountlake Terrace’s Lily Gladstone plays cop in Hulu’s ‘Under the Bridge’

The true-crime drama started streaming Wednesday. It’s Gladstone’s first part since her star turn in “Killers of the Flower Moon.”

Support local journalism

If you value local news, make a gift now to support the trusted journalism you get in The Daily Herald. Donations processed in this system are not tax deductible.