6 out of 10
Julianne Moore as Laurel Hester
Directed by Peter Sollett
Laurel Hester (Moore) wants the same things most people want – to advance in her chosen career while meeting someone and raising a family. Only her chosen career is a police detective and the special someone she interested in is another woman so never the twain can meet.
Very quickly into Freeheld, it should be obvious that it’s a message film about the struggle for equality gay individuals and couples go through. This as opposed to a film with a message about the struggle for equality gay individuals and couples go through. The difference between those two ideas is stark, as films with a message are stories first while message films are the other way around and frequently lose focus (and even interest) in their narratives in order to devote all their effort to the goal.
It is ironically an issue frequently found (and well-commented on) among faith-based movies, which are more interested in pushing their point of view on faith than developing engaging characters or plots to develop their message through. A story should have a point, not just a point of view but an idea it’s trying to get across, but if that idea overwhelms everything around it, the story vanishes and a diatribe takes its place.
Signs of this are clear early on in Freeheld as it rushes through important character moments the filmmakers are plainly not interested in, leaving important points to be passed off through occasional dialogue because focus is elsewhere. When Laurel does meet that special someone – earthy mechanic Stacie (Page) – she quickly rushes into a stable relationship and marriage so that the stage can be set for the real story.
Less than 12 hours after Laurel and Stacie’s first date, and a particularly nasty morning after, Laurel is stating how amazing she thinks Stacie is and director Peter Sollett (Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist) leaves it entirely to the actresses to make that convincing. Most of the rest of their relationship passes in montage, because while that relationship may be what the story is about (based on the documentary of the same name about the real life Laurel Hester), it’s not what the film is about.
What it’s about is Laurel’s discovery of lung cancer and her fight to be considered married as equally before the law as anyone else so that her death benefits can pass to Stacie. This is actually a good thing though Freeheld never dispenses with Ron Nyswaner’s (Philadelphia) extremely on-the-nose dialogue; it at least makes it sound more fitting. Laurel speaking at a county freeholders meeting asking for what is hers by right should sound like she’s reading a prepared political statement – her partner Dane (Shannon) asking why she never trusted him with her secret should not.
Many of the film’s early elements come across that way, especially the procedural police elements which feel like rejects from bad cop dramas of the ’80s with line readings which sound like rehearsal throw outs. They’re not helped by Jane Musky’s intentionally hideous production design or Maryse Alberti’s minimalist photagraphy which give the audience little to focus on but the actors.
And they are given little help because the characters don’t seem to be where the film’s interest lie, which is ultimately Freeheld’s major flaw. Though filled with talented people both in front and behind the camera, everyone seems blind to the fact that the best way to make an idea stick (at least within narrative storytelling) is through the motion of the characters, indelibly tying it to their lives and making the audience care about it because it cares about them, which requires a great deal of balance and a light hand.
There are no light hands in Freeheld and there is no subtext, only text. Message films tend to invite those who are particularly passionate about their message to make them, which tends to put them at loggerheads for dealing with their subject subtly or with some distance.
Not surprisingly the only person who overcomes that problem is Jewish gay lawyer Steven Goldstein (Carell) who takes on Laurel’s cause in order to push his own fight for gay marriage. As the living embodiment of the film’s message, he’s the only character who comes across as alive or interesting to watch, in part because Carell plays him just this side of camp but mainly because he’s the only person for whom yelling gay marriage arguments at full volume all the time doesn’t sound false.
He also completely embodies Freeheld’s flaws and spouts them in a bit of inadvertent metatextualism, exclaiming his willingness to ignore Laurel’s wishes for handling her personal problem and making her fight only about what he wants, because the value of the cause is higher than value of the individuals involved in it.
There’s no better evidence of this lack of care than the way power positions shift among the characters as the focus of the film moves. Moore and Page are undeniably the center of Freeheld’s first half, but as cancer claims more and more of Laurel, she vanishes from the screen, primarily replaced by Dane who takes up leading the fight for her – which means more diatribes about the film’s message.
Which is fine for those already in agreement; for everyone else the result is an unfortunate bait and switch as they go in looking for a story and instead receive a lecture. Freeheld is a movie which is supposed to be about looking past a person’s gender or sexual identity and seeing who they are as a person and understanding why they deserve the rights and respect of individuals – but it can’t be bothered to look beyond its own message to consider its characters as multi-faceted individuals either. And if it can’t, why should anyone else?