REVIEW: Freeheld

19 10 2015

FreeheldFreeheld” is the most unfortunate of contradictions.  This weepie issues drama about the dark age known as 2002 wants to applaud all progress achieved in the past decade for LGBT Americans.  Yet when it comes time for the film’s chief characters, partners Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore) and Stacie Andree (Ellen Page), to show affection after securing a domestic partnership, their kiss literally makes no noise.

Director Peter Sollett and screenwriter Ron Nyswaner love having a good round of self-congratulatory outrage and inspiration for lesbian couples like Laurel and Stacie.  They just don’t really care for gays as people all that much.  If they did, they might realize that the battle against discrimination and stigmatization is not over just because of the Supreme Court’s decision regarding Obergefell v. Hodges.

“Freeheld,” perhaps from bad storytelling but also likely because of bad marketing, wants to insert itself in the debate on marriage equality.  This might make the film appear more “timely,” sure, but it is completely incorrect.  Laurel and Stacie’s battle was never about marriage.  It was about equality under the law, even though their legal union was the 21st century equivalent of “separate but equal.”  To redirect the righteous outrage of a woman who fought for her rights even on her deathbed for pure opportunism feels disgraceful to her memory.

Laurel remained closeted as an occupational hazard on the New Jersey police force, fearing that any strain of moral indecency would only enhance the sexism she already faced.  But once stricken with late-stage cancer, she risks backlash in order to secure the transfer of her pension to Stacie.  The law covers domestic partnerships, yet that does not stop her county’s board of freeholders from refusing her request.

Ellen Page and Julianne Moore in Freeheld

From there, “Freeheld” is concerned far less with Stacie and Laurel, the latter of whose sole purpose becomes to look more frail and ghastly with each passing scene.  It instead shifts focus to a number of male characters, namely Laurel’s detective partner Dane Wells (Michael Shannon), a straight male whose quick shift to support LGBT rights is meant to serve as a comforting surrogate for the audience.  Shannon is a skilled enough actor to somewhat hide the function of his character.

Others in “Freeheld” are not so dextrous.  Josh Charles’ Bryan Kelder, the obvious fly in the ointment among the freeholders, is clearly destined to turn the tide in Laurel’s favor from his introduction into the film.  Watching his predictable character journey unfold proves hopelessly banal.  At least Charles’ bag of clichés is better than the broad stereotypes of gay men that Steve Carell hams up in his role as Steven Goldstein, an advocate for LGBT rights who draws national attention to Laurel and Stacie’s case.  The character plays like a bad Michael Scott board room character (maybe a cousin of Prison Mike?).

But even Carell’s Goldstein is better than the freeholder who has to say the following line about Laurel: “She’s so not like a lesbian!”  This is how “Freeheld” envisions homophobia: cartoonish, obvious, aloof.  The film’s reductive, oversimplified version of a struggle still far from finished does a disservice to those who fought for the gains that have been made.  Worse, its hollow cheers of victory blinds a well-meaning audience from seeing the discrimination and injustice that still remains.  This chronicle of a step forward for LGBT rights ends up taking two steps back … and then maybe a few to the side out of sheer childishness.  C2stars



6 responses

19 10 2015

And yet, lo and behold, nominations all around!

19 10 2015

Nah, I doubt it.

20 10 2015
Dan O.

Good review Marshall. At times, it felt like a after-school special. However, the cast and actual story itself made it worth sticking by.

20 10 2015

That’s disappointing. I’ve really been looking forward to this.

20 10 2015
Bob Wurtenberg

Good review Marshall. This movie is one I’ve been looking forward to and all it did was disappoint me. It never really knew which type of movie it wanted to be.

21 10 2015

It’s too concerned with the issue and pays no mind to story. But I really enjoyed the cast…well, okay, I had a problem with the Steve Carrell part, even though I understand he’s playing an actual flamboyant person…it still felt cartoonish.

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