I sincerely hope that everyone involved in the making of Freeheld feels appropriately ashamed of themselves. They’ve taken a wonderful, inspiring, heart-wrenching, infuriating, and beautiful true story and given it a movie with all the emotional resonance and presence of a Lifetime Original. It’s not just bad, it’s offensively bad. It’s a pandering mess of a film that mistakes sappy sentimentalism for drama and never once does it do justice to the real life tale that inspired it. Shame on you, all of you.
It’s somewhat difficult to pinpoint where, exactly, Freeheld goes wrong. The story is one that should write itself—Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore) is a 23 year veteran of the Ocean County, New Jersey police force when she is diagnosed with lung cancer. Her life in the balance, she makes a request to her bosses in the county that her pension be delivered to her legal domestic partner, Stacie Andree (Ellen Page) after her death. The county council, freeholders, refuse her claim due to the fact that pension benefits can only be delivered to one’s spouse, which sets off a firestorm of protests and pleadings before Hester’s time runs out, leaving Andree without support from her partner.
This is a true story that became symbolic of the struggle for marriage equality in this country, and brought forth the issues facing gay and lesbian couples to mainstream consciousness for the first time. It’s importance is indisputable: The rights and benefits of spouses and partners that straight people take for granted were hard fought battles for the LGBT community, and in this summer of marriage equality it would have been nice to see a film that gives due weight to the stories that led to the awakening of consciousness that’s occurred in the last decade.
What we’ve been given, instead, is uninspired drivel from the minds of people who ought to know better. The script can best be described as lazy, which is shocking considering it was penned by Ron Nyswaner, the Oscar nominated writer of Philadelphia. Little is done to show audiences the relationship between Laurel and Stacee, and what we do see feels stunted and malformed with dialog that would be written by a freshman film student. Director Peter Sollett (Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist) is equally lazy, giving us scenes that feel cobbled together from rushed takes in an effort to just get the movie out while the issues is still hot.
Moore and Page, who are two of the finest actresses working today, do what they can with what they’ve been given, but nothing can make up for the fact that there’s zero chemistry between them. I will say that there are moments where the abilities of both actresses shine through and it is at times hard not to feel for Hester as her cancer begins to spread. And, at times, Page is moving in her portrayal of Andree, a woman struggling both for acknowledgement of her place in her partner’s life as well as the impending loss of her lover. But no performance on earth can make up for the wholly uninspired script and direction.
Michael Shannon looks as though he feels grossly out of place as Dane Wells, Hester’s long term partner on the force whose beliefs get challenged as he sees the injustice his friend is forced to deal with. He mumbles and stumbles his way through his performance, serving as sort of an in for straight people to get and understand the story. And that’s sort of the problem: Straight people don’t need an in. Love is the only in we need, and love should have been the focus. The efforts to frame the story through a lens that straight people can understand diminishes the overall beauty and importance of the story. Basic humanity is tie that binds, and somewhere along the way that fact is overlooked.
And, oh god, Steve Carell gives a positively cringe-worthy performance as Steven Goldstein, an activist lawyer who takes up Hester and Andree’s cause as a way to push the issue of marriage equality into the spotlight. While I understand that his performance was modeled closely off the personality and mannerisms of the real life Goldstein, it comes across on film as a sort of homosexual minstrelsy. He sashays, he twirls, he flicks a limp wrist while saying things like “honey” and “sweetie” in pseudo-mocking tones, seeming very much like what your average middle-America straight guy thinks about when he pictures a homosexual man. Disappointing doesn’t begin to cover it.
Lazy. Lazy lazy lazy lazy lazy. From top to bottom, from beginning to end, Freeheld is nothing but lazy. Hester and Andree both deserve better than the tripe that’s been delivered here, and while the movie means well enough, its good intentions are entirely overshadowed by the intense lack of effort on behalf of the script and direction. Though I’m sure it’s nice for the homosexual community to see a movie that shines a spotlight on the issues affecting them, and that this alone represents a huge step forward, the time for demanding mere presence in movies is long behind us. It’s time to start demanding quality presence in movies that don’t pander and that don’t straight-wash the issue.
Freeheld is now playing in theaters everywhere.