Freeheld is based on the 2007 Oscar-winning documentary of the same name. Both films follow decorated New Jersey detective Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore) and her romantic partner, Stacie Andree (Ellen Page) as they fight the local legislative body – the freeholders – to allow Laurel’s pension to be left to Stacie, after Laurel is diagnosed with late stage lung cancer. Despite indications that the film is set in the early 2000s, it feels weirdly disjointed with regards to time. Perhaps it’s the cardboard cut-out bigots, or Julianne Moore’s Farah Fawcett hair (which the blow drying of serves as a major plot device – on more than one occasion), but at some points it feels like we must be watching a film set 30 years ago or more. Seeing a desktop computer in one scene was the only thing to remind me this wasn’t a ’70s cop movie.1
The film excels at highlighting the everyday lived experiences of being a closeted gay; of being different. It was these moments that stood out for me. Laurel has to drive for hours from her home if she wants to attend a gay-friendly event. When she and Stacie get together, several people believe she is simply her roommate – including, for much of the film, her police partner. It’s when the two go to the town hall (several towns over) to become domestic partners, that we see, at least for me, one of the film’s major political points about gay marriage. Laurel and Stacie sign the papers and leave. And that’s it. No witnesses. No cake. It’s dreary and it’s sad. They make the most of it, sure, but in a film so much about the right for sameness, this is a moment where their difference is accentuated.
Mainstream gay discourse is all about being gays being “just like you”. All they want is a house and a dog, just like you. Freeheld feeds right into this narrative, and it is trite and worthy at times, but it’s also sweet and sad; filled with very clean and understated performances from Moore and Page. For Ellen Page, this movie is a big moment. She’s out, she’s here. It’s refreshing to see queer characters played by queer actors. Page’s character is strong and smart, if a little underdeveloped. But near the end of the film, Stacie speaks to the issue at hand in front of the freeholders, while Page does an excellent job holding back. It’s dignified and personal.
The lack of understatement and subtlety is embodied in Steve Carell’s performance as an outlandish gay Jew stereotype, Steven Goldstein, a gay marriage activist who comes in just after Hester has been diagnosed with cancer. It made sense, at first, to have a Carell come in for comic relief after things started to get heavy, but he never sobers up. He never becomes less jarring. The real Steven Goldstein may have been garish and over the top, but the character here never really lands. Steve Carell is a great actor, capable of more than this, but the writing lets him down. Screenwriter Ron Nyswaner is a long way from his earlier Philadelphia.
While reminiscent of Philadelphia, I can’t help but draw comparisons to one of the other major queer films this year, Neil Armfield’s Holding the Man. Freeheld makes several different stylistic choices from the former. It doesn’t have long, gut wrenching shots of the dying. It doesn’t leave things open and raw, forcing us to watch death be slow and banal. It doesn’t seem like it is making a conscious choice to avoid this, either. Freeheld doesn’t try to gloss over the hard stuff in favour of a different narrative, but one that makes an attempt to focus on it but can’t quite master how.
Ultimately, though, the movie has enough merit to see me recommend it. It does feel small at times, and it might not break much new ground, but it doesn’t have to – its job is to capture an important moment in contemporary gay history. Laurel Hester’s battle with the Board of Freeholders is considered to be a formative moment in gaining equal marriage. More than that, the intimacy in the relationship between the two leads is carefully constructed and wonderfully portrayed by Moore and Page. The film is fun at times, and understands enough subtleties about lesbian culture for a queer audience to enjoy and pick up on. This is not just a gay film built for straight people to cry, but there are real moments of queer fun. The motorcycles on Stacie’s tie are a stand out. There was not a dry eye amongst what seemed like every Sydney lesbian at the closing night of Queer Screen this year, and while the film may not be one of the greats, it was good, it mattered and I’m glad it did.
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