Julianne Moore and Ellen Page are great actresses, and they took their roles in Peter Sollett’s Freeheld as real-life lesbian couple Laurel Hester, a New Jersey police lieutenant, and her partner, Stacie Andree, very seriously. It’s a shame Sollett didn’t capture their performances with equal grit.
The couple get a nice introduction at the beginning of the film, then become background color in their own story. The last quarter unfolds as a courtroom drama rather than a refreshingly human love story of two people whose marriage gets cut cruelly short by cancer. Who wouldn’t watch that?
That’s what the film could have been. Instead, it steered overboard into caricature characters and ill-fitting punchlines and a legal drama that got boring.
Hester is a tough, ultra-closeted detective who has worked with the Ocean County Police Department for 23 years. She carries a gun everywhere and travels an hour on the weekends to play on a lesbian volleyball team. She is working to become lieutenant, which means keeping her sexuality a secret from her male coworkers.
She meets the plaid-shirted, out-and-proud, wise-beyond-her-years Stacie Andree, who is 19 years her junior. Shuffling on her feet, Andree asks Hester for her number.
It’s great to see Page, who came out last year via an awesome speech at the “Time to THRIVE” conference, take on the role of an out lesbian, particularly one who made a difference in the fight for marriage equality.
Page and Moore’s fully committed performances give their characters genuine onscreen chemistry that holds for the first half of the film — the love half. After dating for a year, they become domestic partners and move into a cozy house in the suburbs and start a life.
But that happy life is tragically cut short. Checking on a pain in the side of her chest, Hester discovers she has stage 4 lung cancer, and her chances for survival are slim. Hardscrabble, no-nonsense Hester, who can read through anyone’s bullshit to see the truth, faces facts: she’s going to die, and Stacie is going to be left behind. She immediately requests that her pension benefits be transferred to her partner upon her death so that Stacie can keep their house.
But the freeholders, a cast of bumbling old white guys in suits who are proud of their traditionalism and think lesbians are gross, deny Laurel’s request several times, unaware that the case will soon turn into a media frenzy and crucial point in the LGBT rights battle.
The film does disservice to its own cause by painting its villains with a superficial veneer. They are caricatures of antigay lawmakers everywhere, not real people with deeply-held religious beliefs. Because of this, the film failed to go for the jugular as to why these people (and others like them) hate lesbians. It cheapened their hate into something filmic and dismissible.
The freedholders squabble around about what to do when a massive tidal wave of protest and media attention is launched against them, a negative publicity tirade led by activist Steven Goldstein (Steve Carell), the founder of Garden State Equality, a New Jersey-based activism group that campaigns for LGBT rights.
Goldstein reaches out to Hester, asking to take her case and amplify it as the next battle in the fight for same-sex marriage — which is what it becomes. Hester, for her part, is hardly a campaigner. She refuses to say “same-sex marriage,” but she realizes Goldstein’s campaign may be her only chance. If it feels like her personal tragedy is being used for a political aim, it is, and the film seems more interested in politics than in a dying woman’s relationship with her partner.
Goldstein’s flamboyance wouldn’t be minded if it wasn’t clearly positioned as comic relief in a film that otherwise unfolds rather blandly. And the casting of a straight actor whose career is filled with comedy makes it all too clear that we are supposed to laugh at the flaming faggot to keep this film about cancer and court rooms from being too serious.
Hester withers away and the camera seems not to notice. Sollett chooses to focus on laughs from Goldstein and the clueless freeholders and the strong-chinned Dane, Hester’s partner on the force (played by Michael Shannon), who becomes the most unexpected campaigner for the couple. Everyone who takes over the film’s second half is male — a strange feature in what was promised to be a lesbian love story.
Even as Hester loses her hair and becomes wheelchair-bound, we almost seem to forget she is there until the end, when the film seems overcompensates with a speech from Stacie Andree that is moving but nevertheless feels like an last-minute attempt to refocus and remind us why we’re here.
Text at the end of a movie is usually an indicator something got overlooked. In Freeheld, it was the love story that started it.