Starring- Julianne Moore, Ellen Page, Michael Shannon, Steve Carell, Luke Grimes, Josh Charles, Mary Birdsong, Kelly Deadmon, Gabriel Luna
Director- Peter Sollett
PG-13- some thematic elements, language and sexuality
The true story of Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore), a career police officer who, after being diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2005, fought the Ocean County, New Jersey Board of Chosen Freeholders to ensure that her pension benefits went to her partner, Stacie Andree (Ellen Page).
Freeheld is probably — in fact, almost definitely — a bad movie. But what can I say? Its stupid charm worked on me.
It’s more an example of a movie pressing all the right buttons rather than being genuinely well made. Basically, it’s one of those bad movies that I like anyway because its sensibilities are right up my alley. I don’t mean to suggest that Freeheld is terrible, by the way, just that it’s pretty consistently underwhelming in most respects.
Mostly, it just doesn’t know what story it’s telling. The first half of it is a relationship movie where two people meet, fall in love, get on each others’ nerves, make up, grow closer, and eventually marry. Then, it splits off in two different directions — half terminal illness drama and half civil rights procedural. Laurel and Stacie are strangely uninvolved in the latter, which constantly threatens to become an awards-bait story about all those nice straight people who stood up for the lesbian couple.
There isn’t much of an arc to any of this. None of the main characters change significantly over the course of the film. There are little adjustments here and there, but they’re minor character details more than anything, making the main story a bit richer but having very little to do with it otherwise. Obviously, that’s something you want to do as a writer or filmmaker; it really fills out your characters and the world they inhabit. But if what you intend as character detail ends up being more compelling than the main story, it’s likely your focus is off, especially when that main story isn’t very cohesive to begin with.
Strangely, the movie assigns the vast majority of its major arcs to minor supporting characters. That’s fine — a story’s arc isn’t always focused on the main character; sometimes, it’s about how he or she affects everyone else. Here, it comes across as a poorly managed device to land that big finale where everyone turns out in support of Laurel and Stacie. This movie focuses on the Freeholders and the police force, both of which need to come around to the protagonists’ side by the time the credits roll. The script assigns a minor character to each of those entities and tries to filter those arcs through his perspective. The problem is that the main Freeholder and the main police officer who represent those arcs are both sympathetic to Laurel and Stacie from the beginning — their perspectives don’t change; they simply find the courage to stand and do the right thing. Which would be fine if the movie was specifically about personal courage, but it doesn’t really start teasing those threads until near the end; and also if the movie didn’t use those two character arcs as substitutes for almost everyone else in the film. As soon as those perspective characters decide to show their support, everyone else just follows — even the characters built up as strident homophobes who will need a lot of work in order to come around. So much of its character development seems to happen entirely off-screen.
Peter Sollett directs this thing nearly into oblivion. There’s barely any visual life in Freeheld. It looks very much like a TV movie — dull, lethargic, lit in dim soap opera orange. There are barely any memorable images. It’s very much a “point the camera at the actors and press the button” sort of movie.
Those actors are — predictably, given their caliber — strong, but the chemistry isn’t always there. Julianne Moore and Ellen Page are giving solid performances individually, but only in the film’s happiest moments does their relationship have any spark or lived-in quality. Everywhere else, there’s something off about it, something a little too staged and uninvolving.
I don’t really know what to tell you. It just got me somehow. I have a soft spot for civil rights movies, particularly when they focus on how an entire community of people from different walks of life learned and grew and rallied together. That’s the kind of sappy, beautiful cheese that gets me reaching for tissues. Throw in the inherent sadness of something like this — a woman dying before her time, slowly deteriorating, leaving the person she loves behind, and other people are preventing her from passing secure in the knowledge that person will be cared for — and it’s hard not to feel something.
I know that’s essentially cheating and that Freeheld touches the soul exclusively because of its hot-button topic and the fact that it’s merely bad rather than terrible. That’s something this movie has me wrestling with — if it works, is that the only thing that matters? If I had a good time, I can’t call it a bad movie, can I? But what if it’s clearly pressing the easy button in every scene and only working on your emotions because it has an impossible-to-screw-up premise?
Freeheld appears to have good intentions. That was enough to put me in its corner, if only just. But it is not a good movie.