Freeheld is the laziest kind of Oscar bait—a preachy, issue-based biopic that fails to engage with character, story, or filmmaking. This is the kind of film that will never be watched again once its issue is no longer pertinent, and what’s exceptionally bad about this one is that it’s already too late. This is a gay marriage issue film coming out four months after the US Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges decision made its sentimental thesis the law of the land. Now it is an issue film without an issue, just as blandly ineffectual as its official hash tag, #loveislove.
Director: Peter Sollett
Producers: Kelly Bush Novak, Phil Hunt, Duncan Montgomery, Compton Ross, Jack Selby, Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher, James D. Stern, Cynthia Wade
Writers: Ron Nyswaner
Cinematographer: Maryse Alberti
Editor: Andrew Mondshein
Music: Hans Zimmer
Cast: Ellen Page, Julianne Moore, Steve Carell, Michael Shannon, Josh Charles
Premiere: September 13, 2015 – TIFF
US Theatrical Release: October 2, 2015
US Distributor: Lionsgate
The film dramatizes the lives of Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore), a New Jersey police detective, and her domestic partner Stacie Andree (Ellen Page), a Harley-riding auto mechanic. The two meet at a lesbian volleyball league in Pennsylvania, strategically far from Laurel’s Ocean County, New Jersey home to avoid uncomfortable questions from fellow cops. (Hester is still closeted in her New Jersey police department because she fears that coming out would harm her career.)
From their first date, the screenplay harps on this fact as the couple’s central issue—Stacie is out and Laurel is not. In fact that seems to be the only thing the couple ever talks about. We almost never see them share feelings or ideas, they don’t fall in love and are never happy together. They just argue about the tension based on Laurel’s desire to keep Stacie a secret and go through the officially sanctioned steps of couple-hood: getting a dog and buying a house.
Soon Laurel is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, and the film’s central issue rears its head: will the Ocean County board of Freeholders allow Stacie to be the beneficiary of Laurel’s police pension the same way she would be if they were married? The issue forces Laurel to finally come out—though it is kind of a moot point because she is on her deathbed—and brings their story into the scope of a larger gay rights movement. Gay rights lobbyist Steven Goldstein (Steve Carell) brings in a group of protesters and eventually garners national press attention as a dying Laurel struggles to get Ocean County to reassign her pension.
Yet without meaningful characters, this becomes a self-congratulatory film about relatively mainstream politics. Laurel and Stacie never feel like lovers, or even friends, as they constantly bicker about Laurel’s refusal to come out (an issue that could have been interestingly explored but was not here). In fact, the only meaningful relationship in the film is the one between Laurel and her police partner, Dane Wells (Michael Shannon). His transition from “normal” cop to one defending his partner, a centimeter-difference at best, is as dynamic as this film’s characters get. The actors do their best, and all three leads—Moore, Page, and Shannon—are immensely talented, but the script gives them so little to work with that they struggle to make these characters into anything more that cardboard cutouts.
Interesting issues are hinted at—for instance, Laurel refuses to participate in a gay marriage campaign because she says she doesn’t care about marriage, but instead cares about equality—but they are brushed aside with partisan disdain. Steven quickly mansplains to her that if gay marriage were legal, they wouldn’t have this issue, an obvious truth that still completely disregard’s Laurel’s more complex feelings on the issue.
“Oh honey, I’d marry you, but I wouldn’t know what to do with that vagina,” says Steven about two thirds of the way through this schmaltz-fest. That mentality is emblematic of the film as a whole—this is a film about two women in love that fails to see women as people. This is an important story, and a landmark moment in the history of gay rights in America, but it deserves a better film than this—one that shows its characters as real people rather than ticks on an agenda-based checklist. Making this project even more vapid, there already was a better film made about this story; a 2007 short documentary by the same title won the Academy Award for Best Short Documentary. This is an unnecessary remake, a heavy handed issue film released after its central issue has already been settled. It elicits only one real sensation: why bother?