Freeheld (2016) – Movie Review
Directed by: Peter Sollett
Written by: Ron Nyswaner
Starring: Julianne Moore, Ellen Page, Michael Shannon & Steve Carell
Music: Hans Zimmer & Johnny Marr
Release Date: February 22nd (Straight-to-DVD)
Another February, another same-sex romance movie during the month of love that ultimately gets buried by the more mainstream fare. Last year, we had indie-darling ‘Love is Strange‘ and this year we have ‘Freeheld‘, except ‘Freeheld‘ is getting an on-demand release with a theatrical role-out that has barely registered in the U.K (it’s apparently playing in 12 theatres but I couldn’t find out where these were, so I’m counting this as an on-demand review). But ‘Freeheld‘ comes from very different roots as it’s based off the 2007 documentary of the same name by Cynthia Wade.
The documentary in question followed Laurel Hester, a police lieutenant diagnosed with Lung Cancer, through the last 10 weeks of her life as she tried to campaign for her police pension to be left to her same-sex, domestic partner. The documentary was incredibly well received and even went on to win the Academy Award for “Best Documentary (Short Subject)”. There are also a lot of eyes on co-star Ellen Page who not only acts as a Producer on the ‘Freeheld‘ feature film, but it’s also her first openly gay acting role since coming out in February 2014. Can ‘Freeheld‘ do justice to the true story just like Hester managed to find justice for her rights?
In the early 2000s in Ocean County, New Jersey Laurel Hester (Moore) is working as a police officer who is a closeted homosexual for fear of being unable to keep her job. She’s even kept it hidden from her police-partner, Danes Wells (Shannon). However, she meets Stacie Andrew, a mechanic and 19 years Laurel’s junior and the two start up a domestic partnership and even get a house together. But Laurel is diagnosed with late-stage Lung Cancer and with little hope of survival, wants to leave her police pension to Stacie. But current state legislation requires the county’s board of freeholders to approve the decision, but they all deny her this right because of their same-sex partnership. Laurel, Stacie and Danes must fight for this right before Laurel dies of the cancer.
It’s a true story that you can’t help but be emotionally invested in if you actually have a heart or a conscience, though it’s hard to escape the sense that ‘Freeheld‘ is being carried by its subject-matter. The romance between Laurel and Stacie feels very left-field and the audience doesn’t get a sense of what these two love about each other. There are some well-written nuances and believable aspects like when Laurel brings a gun to their first date which Stacie is freaked out by initially, but then apologises. A lesser movie would have had a contrived separation at that point, but ‘Freeheld‘ manages to frequently humanise these two as people, if not necessarily a couple.
A lot of the scenes come across like they were part of a “TV Movie of the Week” or a “Lifetime Movie” as Laurel and Stacie furnish their house, paint the walls as they playfully fight, take long walks on the beach etc. ‘Freeheld‘ tries so hard to sell this romance that really has no foundation (I’m talking strictly about the movie here, not the real-life events). This becomes both a blessing and a curse when the movie goes into its second half where Laurel gets diagnosed with cancer and starts to become incredibly weak due to the chemotherapy meaning it’s up to Danes from the police-department and gay-marriage activist, Steven Goldstein (played by Steve Carell) to take up the cause.
With this story tangent, ‘Freeheld‘ reveals itself more as an activist movie that is invested in getting its audience to understand how important it is to support those who are unable to help themselves, or the importance of strength in numbers in order to find justice. And while the second half of ‘Freeheld‘ is more more engaging than the first due to the progress happening within the narrative and the introduction of more characters, it does wind up side-lining Laurel and Stacie as they become bystanders in their own story.
Yes, Laurel is in a hospital bed and Stacie refuses to leave her side so it becomes difficult to involve either of them in the story, but there are still lost opportunities to remind the viewer just what the immediate stakes are. In the movie, Stacie shaves Laurel’s head as her hair starts to fall out due to the chemotherapy, but in the real-life story, Stacie had her head shaved as well so she could show support. But that never happens in the movie and it feels like moments like that really would have made ‘Freeheld‘ a more intimate experience, as opposed to seeing the true events be re-created by famous actors.
The performances in ‘Freeheld‘ are the best thing going for it, aside from the core premise. Julianne Moore and Ellen Page do have chemistry with each other, even if the screenplay doesn’t quite back it up. This is the type of role we’ve seen Moore play numerous times and she’s predictably good here, but it’s Ellen Page who walks away with the whole movie. Her being a soft-spoken mechanic makes for an interesting contrast and seeing such a young person dealing with a guaranteed loss makes for some very powerful moments that Ellen portrays brilliantly. ‘Freeheld‘ is clearly a passion project for Ellen as she’s also a Producer on the movie and it’s clear that she’s throwing her all into it. Michael Shannon is also great in one of the rare occasions that we don’t see him as a villain and it’s a role he should be seen in more often (it mainly just demonstrates how much range he has).
The strange casting choice is Steve Carell as real-life gay activist Steven Goldstein. When he first appeared as a gay-version of his character from “The Office” I thought he’d only have a brief role, but he has a prominent presence in the second half as he leads gay activists from New York to campaign for Laurel’s rights. He mainly feels like stunt-casting as well as ill-judged comic relief as he plays an over-the-top, flamboyant, stereotypical gay who hits on every guy he sees. Whether or not Goldstein is like that in real life, this movie portrayal feels very counter-productive. Conversely, the freeholders at the council are mostly comprised of old white men who have no valid reason for denying Stacie her partner’s pension. It’s hard to add nuance to a movie where very little existed in real life as the freeholders only had their own outdated biases holding back the ruling.
Which is kinda what holds ‘Freeheld‘ together. This is a very simple good-bad dynamic with no grey-area and while there’s nothing wrong with that, the fact that the characters themselves are also written so equally broadly prevents ‘Freeheld‘ from resonating beyond an initial viewing. Yes, we know that Laurel and Stacie are completely in the right here and the freeholders are in the wrong, but the characters themselves and their relationships don’t build on top of those simple foundations. Basically, if your moral compass is pointed in the right direction, you’ll probably like ‘Freeheld‘ but beyond that…there’s not much else to it.
Even from a production stand-point, ‘Freeheld‘ feels like a TV-movie, which is odd considering the subject matter and the high-profile actors. The direction, while hardly bad, doesn’t have any sort of flare or anything noteworthy in terms of choices or stylistic decisions, its standard over-the-shoulder dialogue sequences prevent the performances from really settling and its the longer-drawn out takes that feel most effective. That’s not to say that the production values are bad it’s just…there’s nothing really here. I was surprised to see Hans Zimmer’s name in the credits for co-composing the music with Johnny Marr because with the exception of near the very end of the movie when everyone starts speechifying, nothing leaves an impact.
‘Freeheld‘ does its job as a serviceable, low-budget, feel-good biopic with whole-heartedly good intentions, but as an engaging romance, character piece or effective narrative, it relies too much on the subject matter to carry it to the finish line. The cast are great (save for an out of place Steve Carell) but they’re given broadly written characters and even the central romance isn’t incredibly convincing. Its real-life events are inherently interesting and worth investing in emotionally, but anyone who has seen the 2007 short documentary will have the exact same experience as seeing ‘Freeheld‘, except it’s less than 1/3 of the length. Noble but lacking, ‘Freeheld‘ is destined to be a staple of “TV Movie of the Week” segments for years to come, but it’s hard to escape the fact that it should have been more than that. After all, Gay Marriage was only legalised in America eight months ago.
I give ‘Freeheld‘ 2 and a half stars out of 5.
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Posted: 24th Feb 16