If the Ocean County, New Jersey Board of Chosen Freeholders sounds to you like the most boring villains in the history of cinema (with the possible exception of the Trade Federation blockade in “The Phantom Menace”), you would not be wrong. You’d also be forgiven if a movie’s central crisis concerning the inability to transfer earned pension benefits to a domestic partner sounds as compelling as a trip to the DMV. These are some of the insurmountable problems in “Freeheld,” a would-be but not-actually-inspiring movie about a landmark LGBT rights case that loses sight of the flesh and blood people at its heart, gets bogged down in tedious municipal politics and fails to find a way to compellingly dramatize an important story.
A movie about people deeply in love, who are denied basic human rights and who struggle to their dying breath to ensure their struggles are not in vain —that sounds like a compelling story and is the one “Freeheld” wants to tell. But the movie can’t keep its eye on the human condition, and when it does, it’s mawkishly rendered and without much spark. It’s difficult to get invested in fairly unremarkable, underdeveloped characters when they feel more like pawns in a larger, if well-meaning, political agenda.
Directed by Peter Sollett (“Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist“), one of the movie’s crucial missteps is its need to normalize every event. The film tries to express how everyday people who happen to be gay like Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore) and Stacie Andree (Ellen Page) are being screwed by the an outmoded system, but the pair come off as really dull: they watch baseball, they renovate a house together and they eat dinner.
Cynthia Wade’s 2007 documentary “Freeheld: The Laurel Hester Story”—the inspiration for this drama— works because as it triggers our indignation, and at a brief 40 minutes, it economically chronicles a grave injustice and its seminal aftermath. The Freeholders reversed their decision, paving the way for this summer’s Supreme Court decision to make same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states.
As timely as “Freeheld” the 2015 drama may seem with respect to the same-sex ruling still fresh in our #lovewins hashtag memories, it rarely taps into that same swelling-with-pride feeling, instead conjuring up something more Movie-Of-The-Week topical. Written by Ron Nyswaner, this film is charged to take fairly uncinematic and undramatic material—making a motion to deny or pass a resolution isn’t all that exciting narratively— and infuse it with poignancy and soul. Instead, the film runs headfirst into the procedural grind of petitioning lawmakers and the fruitless merry-go-round of bureaucracy, paperwork and legislation.
The only other option is melodrama, which the movie obviously goes for, but it also stumbles in doing much else than to tell a fairly rote front-to-back story of Hester, a highly-decorated New Jersey police officer who died of terminal cancer, but first changed the minds of stubborn Freeholders in Ocean County who were hellbent on preserving what they believed to be the sanctity of marriage (spoiler alert!).
Knowing everything we do about “Freeheld”—by watching a trailer, reading a synopsis, knowing about the film’s existence at all, aka everything— it is the duty of the filmmakers to go beyond bland recitation, and in that regard they do not succeed.
Flaccidly told both from a writing and directing perspective, “Freeheld” finds the closeted cop Hester and her butch, auto-mechanic girlfriend Andree meet cute, and aside from Hester’s control issues (which are spelled out often in needless expository dialogue rather than shown) their relationship is up and running. Hester tries to hide aspects of her personal life from her cop partner Dane Wells (Michael Shannon) which causes some resentments, but the first half of the movie is largely conflict free and centers on the halcyon days of an average relationship (and it’s generic enough that even a Hans Zimmer score goes by unnoticed).
When Hester’s cancer finally emerges, “Freeheld” finds some brief purpose, but begins to sink once it hits those oh-so-dynamic Freeholders meetings, open to the public and full of monotonous monologues. As cancer erodes her body and spirit, Wells and Andree fight for Hester, and the movie goes in every conventional tearjerking direction. “Freeheld” sticks so close to the real story that it doesn’t even give the audience the satisfaction of hating its uninteresting bad guys, local bureaucrats spouting “gee, sorry, our hands are tied” boilerplate.
While well-intentioned, “Freeheld” is so slavish about its misplaced notions of authenticity that it would rather put a silly and distracting wig on Moore than let her sport a naturalistic, less-risible look. Naturally, Moore is the saving grace of the movie, but like her performance in “Still Alice,” she’s the shining light of a paint-by-numbers movie. The third act is where she does her finest work and where “Freeheld” is at its most stirring, but this too is emotionally manipulative and dubious.
The other actors don’t fare very well—the less said about an overwrought Steve Carrell as the flamboyant founder of a LGBT Equality group, the better, and his attempts at levity are awful (though his arguments with Moore, whose character wants to focus on personal rather than the political elements, are richly ironic considering the movie’s flaws). “Freeheld” may pass the Bechdel Test with flying colors, but that’s pretty meaningless when Page is largely reduced to the thankless worried girlfriend role. At least Shannon has a character arc, but his dialogue is occasionally so poor it elicits unintentional laughter.
Aside from its actors who do their best with tepid material, “Freeheld” has myriad issues, compounded by a sappy tone that feels like it’s been plucked straight out of a Lifetime Movie. Beyond the movie’s central weakness of a plot with little conflict and despite a life on the line, at 103 minutes, “Freeheld” feels like a strained and stretched-to-its-limits two hours or more.
Its didactic, “we are telling an important story” qualities almost overshadow the human component. A for-the-ages love story destroyed by illness and then bureaucracy could have been potent, but “Freeheld” is too concerned with the bigger picture to remember that the smaller, more personal frame is where the audience should be looking.
Inherent to cinema and storytelling is drama, and to that end the filmmakers behind “Freeheld” would have improved its narrative with some creative invention. While honoring a true story by being utterly faithful to its story sounds nice in theory, you do a disservice to a cause and the people involved by making a film this unexceptional, bloodless and uninvolving. Do yourself a favor and watch Wade’s Academy Award-winning documentary short of the same name instead. [D+]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival.