I wasn’t sure what I thought of Freeheld after I saw it. I wasn’t sure a week later. I’m a card-carrying hippie commie pinko; shouldn’t I be falling all over myself to worship a film that’s brave enough to tackle the story of a woman and her domestic partner fighting the system for equal rights?
It’s a quiet film. But does a film have to shout to get its message across? It doesn’t dig too deeply into the personal lives of the real-life folks these characters are based on. But does a film need to uncover everything in order to be true to that person?
Well, a film doesn’t need to shout to get itself heard. And it doesn’t have to delve into every painful, agonizing moment to paint a full and accurate representation onscreen. However, it does need to go beyond the surface of the people in the story, and the message needs to be more than “hey, d’ja hear about this?” Freeheld has a powerful, uplifting true story at its heart. It’s got amazing actors, and a screenwriter (Ron Nyswaner, Philadelphia) that knows how to deliver the biopic goods.
But the film doesn’t rise to its potential. Instead, Freeheld simply shows you images of a life lived, and people who lived it. It pulls heartstrings shamelessly, without giving you a feeling for the people living the story. Did I tear up a time or two during this film? Absolutely; you’d have to be dead inside not to. But this film feels like the echo of a story, rather than the story itself. The lives of Laurel Hester and Stacie Andree as they fought for Hester’s ability to pass her pension on to her partner Andree were filled with pain, hopelessness and ultimately triumph. But Freeheld doesn’t go beyond the typical Lifetime movie treatment.
From what I’ve pieced together from the film, these women were intensely private people. They lived normal lives, had a dog, a cute house the fixed up, and a very strong love for each other. But you’ll have to piece together everything about these women beyond what set design and art direction can tell you. Hester’s battle with cancer is shown in pieces, and these pieces are heartbreaking. But they’re just pieces. Julianne Moore’s Hester is trotted out now and again to show that yes, cancer is horrible. Ellen Page’s Andree is shown working as a mechanic, as if that’s the only way to show that Andree is her own person as well as Hester’s partner. Even Steve Carell’s larger-than-life flamboyantly alive attorney Steven Goldstein feels muted. It’s as if someone grabbed the soft focus from Barbara Walters’ interviews and used it on this story. Everything here feels distant.
The only bits of clarity comes from two of the supporting players, Michael Shannon as Hester’s partner Dane Wells, and Luke Grimes as fellow officer Todd Belkin. Shannon does an excellent job hinting at feelings Wells might have had for Hester, while supporting her and her partner through the legal battle. And as closeted cop Belkin, Grimes manages to put more feeling into his brief moments onscreen than Page and Moore are allowed to show in the entire film. Because really, it’s not the issue that Page and Moore can’t emote — watch Juno and Still Alice — it’s that their performances feel hemmed in, scrubbed clean of true depth. And that I lay at the feet of director Peter Sollett.
Fellow pinkos, head out to Freeheld if you’re really jonesing to get your LBGT civil rights happy nice time on. But you can also just sit tight and wait for Stonewall, which hits later this year. That works too.
Awards Season Watch: the beautiful closing credits song by Miley Cyrus, “Hands of Love”, is sure to be nominated for Best Song this year. As the credits rolled I was picturing the performance. I’m betting on lots of flowing white fabric. Or disco teddy bears. Maybe both.