Review: “Freeheld”

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What in the world is a cast as amazing as Julianne Moore, Ellen Page, Michael Shannon and Steve Carrell doing with a flimsy, schlocky script worthy of the Lifetime network? I can answer that: they’re doing the best they can. At the core of Freeheld is a moving true story worth being told. I assume that’s why it already has been told, in a 2007 Oscar-winning, short-form documentary of the same name. The question then becomes: why did it have to be told again, but with Hollywood stars and Hollywood schmaltz? I have an answer for that one, too. It didn’t.

After being diagnosed with late-stage cancer, New Jersey detective Laurel Hester (Moore) wanted to leave her pension to her domestic partner Stacie Andree (Page). She had to fight a legal battle against her local government, while dying no less, to be able to do what straight, married couples could do without anyone batting an eye. What occurs is a small-scale battle against the New Jersey Board of Freeholders to perform a simple money transfer, which really represents a step forward for equal rights. Along the way, Laurel finds help in the form of her cop partner (Shannon) and the leader of a gay rights organization (Carrell).

The first act of Freeheld depicts the budding romance between Hester and Andree, and it is absolutely terrible. One of the most stilted and boring meet-cutes I’ve ever seen is followed up by a barrage of sappy romance tableaus. I don’t really care if this is exactly how their relationship started in real life. It is portrayed as tedious and dull. The chemistry between Moore and Page is definitely there, so their cutesy first encounters aren’t really necessary to show that they love each other deeply. The film could have, and probably should have, began with their relationship already underway. We also get a cringe-worthy cop chase in the opening scene, kicking things off to an exceptionally bad start. Not only is it completely out of place with the rest of the movie, it was clearly directed by someone who has never shot action in his life. That would be Peter Sollett, a guy best known for his supremely overrated, equally-cliched hipster romance Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.

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Sollett’s filmmaking style is blunt and manufactured, and while that may have worked for a movie like Nick and Norah where the characters themselves are living artifices, it doesn’t lend itself well to a true story meant to represent living, breathing people. The characters all feel like caricatures, and though the real-life figures may have had some certain stereotypical traits, writer Ron Nyswaner (of Philadelphia) doesn’t reach beyond those reductive attributes for anything more going on in their minds.

I would argue that not only does the screenplay not do justice to the real heroism that took place in this town, it inadvertently portrays several of its supposed heroes as selfish (Carrell) and helpless (Moore, Page). As Hester’s cancer treatment continues and she becomes physically weaker, the movie sidelines her completely, and Page’s character as well. In fact, the character who has the most power and agency by the end is Shannon’s straight, white male cop. Talk about undermining your own message. Sollett tries to fix this problem with a bunch of on-the-nose lines of dialogue to make sure we know that Moore is the real hero after all, but this just makes the film feel even more clumsy.

Maybe the grotesque heavy-handedness of the script would have been more appropriate in the midst of the debate over gay marriage, which from a legal standpoint effectively ended on June 26th of this year. Regardless, there are plenty of recent movies overtly supporting LGBTQ rights that are infinitely more nuanced and sensitive than Freeheld. Where to start? Last year’s powerful HBO documentary The Case Against Eight? How about Milk, Love is Strange, or Dallas Buyers Club? Really, most high-profile movies featuring openly gay characters are less brutally manipulative in its themes, not to mention just being generally better written and directed.

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The only real saving grace are the performances. As with Still Alice (which honestly isn’t a much better film), Moore continues to demonstrate her commitment to disappear into any character she’s given, no matter how thin. Her physical transformation is astounding in a way that is totally out of sync and on a whole other plane than everything and everyone else in the movie. The subtle changes in the way she speaks and moves over the course of the film adds subtle, human layers where Sollett and Nyswaner have failed to provide them for her.

Shannon and Carrell can’t really match such a fantastic turn, but the different energies they bring to the later part of the movie, while Moore is bedridden and essentially pushed out of her own movie, keeps each scene rolling along nicely. The sheer acting talent allows the film to build to a genuinely emotional conclusion, which I honestly didn’t think would happen considering just how poor the quality of everything else is.

I often fall into the trap of believing that if a movie doesn’t have a good director or script, there’s absolutely nothing that can save it. This is the rare movie that shakes that belief. The cast really pours everything they can into salvaging this bargain bin recounting of a truly heartbreaking and inspiring small-scale story. The result is a movie that isn’t exactly good, but also isn’t a horrifying failure. I may have internally scoffed through a large portion of it, but I was also never bored. I was even kind of moved. The forty-minute documentary is probably a better choice if you want to know more about Laurel Hester’s story, but if you only watch things with Hollywood stars in them, then I guess Freeheld‘s existence is not in vain.

Score: 2.5 out of 5

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