Director: Peter Sollett
Cast: Julianne Moore, Ellen Page, Michael Shannon, Steve Carell, Josh Charles, Luke Grimes, Dennis Boutsikaris, Skipp Sudduth, Tom McGowan, Mary Birdsong, Gabriel Luna, Stink Fisher
MPAA Rating: (for some thematic elements, language and sexuality)
Running Time: 1:43
Release Date: 10/2/15 (limited); 10/9/15 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | October 8, 2015
It's not the fault of Freeheld that its call for equality already has been answered. The recent decision by the Supreme Court of the United States guaranteeing same-sex couples equal standing under the law does provide us with an intriguing perspective on the movie. It exists in an unfortunate bubble between the civil rights battle and the ultimate result. It's fighting the fight, but it's uncertain of the outcome, meaning the movie's tactics are sincere but overly delicate. It wants to rock the boat, as long as it avoids getting people annoyed by any water splashing over the sides.
The screenplay by Ron Nyswaner (based on the short documentary of the same name by Cynthia Wade) pulls its punches for the sake of diplomacy. Equality is presented as an idea and an ideal that benefits this specific couple—two women in a legal domestic partnership—under these particular circumstances—the local government's decision to deny its employee's pension benefits to her legal partner because of a loophole in state law.
When the concept of broader equality arises, it does so only to be dismissed as too much or, in the parlance of the characters in the movie (even the ones who are sympathetic to the cause at hand), "radical." The character who actually does fight for the sort of real equality that would solve the problem presented within this story is the movie's comic relief—a flamboyant activist from out of town who flirts and flaunts without any regard for the comfort of others. It's a little embarrassing how Nyswaner and director Peter Sollett undermine the only logical, inevitable solution to this crisis by turning its mouthpiece into a joke. That's diplomacy for you.
This is an innately political movie that wants to avoid any firm political stance. It's a product of the time of the movie's production (even more so than the time of its setting—about a decade ago), but progress has undone the movie's approach. Before the court's ruling (which the movie acknowledges in a title card during the coda), the movie's argument likely would have come across as toothless. After the fact, it appears not only outdated but also downright quaint.
If there were something more to the movie beyond the central political debate, perhaps it would sit easier. The movie begins that way, exploring the burgeoning romance between Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore), a detective with the Ocean County Police Department in New Jersey, and Stacie Andree (Ellen Page), who is about two decades Laurel's junior. The two meet at a volleyball game in Stacie's hometown in Pennsylvania. Laurel travels as far as she can to try to meet women, because she's worried that her career might suffer if anyone were to learn of her sexual orientation.
It's a sweet love story, told in sunny montages of walks and talks on the beach but also in how quickly devoted they are to each other. They obtain status as a domestic partnership. They buy a house. They get a dog. It's a simple, shared dream between the two. Laurel wants to provide for Stacie, and Stacie is as patient as she can be with Laurel's decision to cover up their relationship.
Then Laurel is diagnosed with Stage Four cancer. Stacie holds on to hope for recovery, but Laurel is pragmatic in her outlook. She wants to make sure that her pension benefits pass on to Stacie so that her partner can continue to pay the mortgage on their house after her death. The county freeholders deny her request.
Once that happens, the couple at the heart of the story takes a backseat to the debate surrounding them. The freeholders get their time, primarily with Bryan Kelder (Josh Charles) having doubts and Bill Johnson (Tom McGowan) holding firm to his belief in "traditional" marriage. Laurel's partner Dane Wells (Michael Shannon) tries to overcome his own prejudices to convince the rest of the department to support a fellow officer in need (In these scenes and the ones with the freeholders, the movie has an astute observation in seeing local government as a kind of popularity contest—lots of going along to get along despite personal beliefs). Word of the case reaches marriage equality advocate Steven Goldstein (Steve Carell), who comes into town with busloads of protestors at his beck and call. He's the character who makes the most sense but becomes a mostly ineffective butt of some jokes for his troubles.
Every argument here is a soundbite, and every character exists to dutifully provide his or her piece of the debate. The screenplay has Laurel and Stacie, the characters who should matter the most here, going through motions without really exploring how all of this—Laurel's illness and possible aftermath—affect them. It's a little distracting that the platonic relationship between Laurel and Dane has a greater emotional impact than the romantic one between the two lovers. That, apparently, is also a byproduct of diplomacy.
In a way, then, the movie serves as its own assembly of freeholders. It wants to do what's right but feels obligated to adhere to what it sees as the popular sentiment of its time. Freeheld is a time capsule of tactful, half-hearted advocacy.
Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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