‘Freeheld’ Tells Important Story, But Lacks Liveliness

I’m really torn about Freeheld. There’s a part of me that really wants to like it. The story it tells is important, not only because it’s from a perspective seldom told on-screen, but also because it’s a cogent reminder of what the LGBT community has had to deal with. It’s a loaded cast that features two of my favorite actors. And it’s a powerful story imbued with fighting for one’s rights and love to the very end.

On the other hand, it’s a story told without an ounce of liveliness, a take better suited for a Hallmark original rather than what was likely — up until a very recent critical downpour coming out of the Festival circuit — a strong Oscar contender.

Freeheld is the true story of Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore), a lesbian and highly decorated cop in Ocean County. She keeps her life as a gay woman secret until she meets Stacie Andree (Ellen Page), a young woman with whom Laurel quickly falls in love. They move in together and lead their picturesque life until tragedy strikes.

Laurel is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and seeks to transfer her pension to Stacie. Unfortunately, given the oversights of the law and the prejudices of the governing body (the Freeholder board that gives the film its name), she is denied that right and that puts Stacie’s future and the home they’ve built in jeopardy.

So, the film essentially divides into two different films from here. One film is the Nicholas Sparks tragic romance and the other chronicles the political fight for equality, an attempt at creating a film for LGBT civil rights like Selma.

The first is by and way the less interesting of the two, but it also happens to be the material that ultimately works better. The “success” of this material is largely thanks to Moore’s Laurel. Moore is a consistently amazing actress, and her ability to effortlessly disappear into a character makes Laurel an effortless center to the film. You’re going to feel for her, regardless of whether or not the narrative arc earns your tears.

Where the problems start to come in is in the other half of this romance. Now, credit must be given where credit is due. Page was important in getting this movie made, she thought it an important story to tell and so she threw her weight behind getting it produced.

However, knowing the story was important, she should perhaps have had the instincts to cast someone different in the role she took. It’s not that she does a bad job, though she seems to dip in and out of giving a deeper performance. It’s that she is distractingly miscast in this role. Especially against Moore, Page looks uncomfortably young. It strains the credibility of the two of them together, especially given that the film does show us real photos of the couple, and while the age gap is apparent, it is nowhere near as extreme as it is in the film.

And in fact, that’s really the whole problem with this part of the film. There’s just not much thought put into it at all. It seems to lean on the emotions you’re going to feel from the story itself to distract you from the fairly standardized Nicholas Sparks structure of meet-cute to happy-life to tragic-impending-death. Perhaps it’s a good sign that we’ve accepted LGBT relationships to the point that they can now proceed to the same eye-rolling clichés in Hollywood film as heterosexual relationships.

So let’s move on to the other part of the film, the political fight for equality. In theory, this should be the better part of the film, given screenwriter Ron Nyswaner’s background in having written the classic Philadelphia, one of the first films to acknowledge homosexuality and the political fights that surrounded it in the early 90s.

This section, due to Stacie’s aggressive isolation for most of the film from this issue and therefore Laurel’s isolation, is led by Dane Wells, Laurel’s police partner, played by Michael Shannon.

Let me make something clear. I love Shannon, I think he’s one of the best actors working today. And he does a good job here. But he is woefully miscast. Shannon is at his best while expressing wide-eyed rage and barely contained violence. Here, he plays the angel cop, who quickly comes on the side of right and fights against injustice in a world that misunderstands him. It’s not in his wheelhouse. His wonderful expressiveness is reduced down to a few speeches and statements, a fact with which any audience watching this film is going to agree.

And that’s the real problem with this part of the film. It has no idea to where it’s playing. It seems like it has multiple conflicting ideas. At some points, it seems like a fist-pumping story of victory for its audience, one reciting the struggles and eventually the triumphs of a community fought against. One that can loop around to having a leader as cartoonish and offensively brought in from another film as Steve Carell’s gay activist character, a character for whom it would be unsurprising if the credit went to Michael Scott. Seriously. He’s uncomfortably mincing.

But at other points, the film feels extremely didactic and yet it is preaching to an audience that will already agree. At one point, the film brings in a preacher who makes a direct address to the camera extolling what exactly Jesus said about homosexuality. It’s a a bit that feels out of place in this particular film, one that would likely have been far more at home in Philadelphia.

And it isn’t as though a film that is trying to change the world, or a film that is celebrating victory would have been a problem. But the blending of both means that the film feels lost, without an identity in an important section of its story.

I’ve been harping a lot on the story of this film, but that’s because it’s one of the few things to discuss. Director Peter Sollett seems to be incapable of creating a form for this film worthy of interest. The film is shot at a TV-movie level. There’s just nothing interesting going on visually or … at any level. It’s a film doing what it needs to do to be a film, but we should never demand bare minimum competency from a film that demands to be taken so seriously.

One laments that Freeheld was not in stronger hands. Hands that had some clear ideas, or some desire to make a mark with it. It feels as though the film has settled for simply having a strong story idea. Except, there’s an Oscar winning documentary about the subject called Freeheld that tells this story with all the emotion it needs.

This particular Freeheld is Hollywood dullness and a sigh of what could have been.

GRADE: D+

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