Reviews

In ‘Freeheld’, As in Life, It Takes Chutzpah to Challenge Convention

Freehold cuts between private melodrama and public demonstration, not quite trusting the audience to grasp the everyday struggles facing lesbians in America.


Freeheld

Director: Peter Sollett
Cast: Julianne Moore, Ellen Page, Michael Shannon, Steve Carell, Josh Charles
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Summit Entertainment
Year: 2015
US date: 2014510-02 (Limited release)
Website
Trailer

"You have the power, you have the power." So chant the protestors at a meeting of the Ocean County Board of Chosen Freeholders. Led by the shrewd, fierce Steven Goldstein (Steve Carell), the group is assembled before five white straight men in suits, who do their best to remain apart, seated behind their bench, looking down at Steven, who goes so far as to kneel as he chants.

At once dramatic and comic, Steven's performance does what it's designed to do, which is to highlight and challenge the power of the board. At this and other moments in Freeheld, this power is a function of tradition and ritual, of resistance to change and fear of difference, especially loud difference. Steven here embodies change and difference, being a gay Jewish activist who's arrived in town with the express purpose of rattling the board, of making them reverse a decision they made months before, a decision by which they denied a decorated state police detective's request that her pension go to her wife.

Make that her domestic partner. It's a distinction that matters in Freeheld, based on an Oscar-winning documentary short of the same name and set in 2005's New Jersey, before same-sex marriage was legally recognized (in 2013). Following the real-life case, the board of freeholders is set against Laurel (Julianne Moore) and Stacie (Ellen Page), who become reluctant activists even as Laurel is enduring Stage 4 cancer and chemo, which is to say, she becomes increasingly weak physically as she becomes increasingly determined spiritually, psychically, and politically.

Her transformation is at once compelling, devastating, and a bit contrived. Much as she does in Still Alice, Moore exposes the complications of such a radical transformation, the nuance of her performance sometimes working against the soapy inclination of Ron Nyswaner's script. Introduced as a successful veteran detective, resolutely closeted on the job. Hoping to become the department's first female lieutenant, she maintains a polished, wholly under-control appearance (pants suits and Farrah Fawcett-style hair), and keeps her secret even from her longtime partner, Dane (Michael Shannon).

To keep her lives separate, Laurel drives to Pennsylvania to play volleyball, where she's at once hopeful and horrified to meet Stacie. Their romance is a thing pretty much instantly, and save for a few arguments, as Stacie resents having to play Laurel's "friend" and then "roommate", their commitment is established in order that the film can move on to its focus on broader social and political conflicts.

It does this mostly by showing the effects of the public struggle on straight folks. In this, Freehold recalls Nyswaner's sPhiladelphia, inviting you, dear straight reader, to identify with Dane as he makes his own way from shock when she comes out (how could he not have known?) to his own resentment (why didn't she confide in him, her partner?), from his unthinking prejudice (assuming that the pension is only for a married person)) to his out-loud support (he starts rallying -- shaming, really -- the other cops to her cause, primarily depicted here as guys worried about preserving their highly performative macho swagger, glancing at one another and then away whenever he makes an appeal in the squad room.

The camera follows suit, observing the men one by one, occasionally lingering on the one detective (Luke Grimes) whom you know is gay because he and Laurel spotted one another at a local bar one evening. As the film underlines this point, that Laurel's not the only individual in the unit with a secret, you're reminded of the difficulty of sustaining performances over time. Freeheld doesn't quite trust you to understand this on your own, however, and so includes a scene where Laurel speaks alone in an interview room with a frightened witness to a murder (Mina Sundwall), talking around her own situation, concerning the stress of keeping a secret and the self-hatred it can engender.

This interview sets Laurel and the girl in a stark room in a conventionally masculine domain and movie convention. As they look at one another across the wide gray table, they might be mirror images of themselves and each other, visibly fearful and not quite as fearful, young and old, It's a scene that resonates here, but Freeheld again moves on, insistent on its episodic business.

This business takes a turn when Steven arrives, as he launches Laurel and Stacie's private melodrama into a public demonstration. That's his job -- both as the character and as Steve Carell -- and the movie's rhythms turn hectic as it works to accommodate him and also admire Laurel and Stacie's quieter strengths. During one performance at a board meeting, Steven and his group's protests are intercut with Stacie's shaving of Laurel's head, as chemo takes its dreadful effects. The point is clear, too clear, that the protests against public indignities and discriminations have little to do with the intimate, stunning losses imposed by cancer.

Even as Freeheld only makes a brief note about the brutal practices of the health care and insurance systems, leaving that argument to another movie, it seems overwhelmed by the story it means to tell, its many turns and contradictions. And so it focuses on its message, delivering it, much like Steven does his, repeatedly and noisily.

5
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Film

Nazis, Nostalgia, and Critique in Taika Waititi's 'Jojo Rabbit'

Arriving amidst the exhaustion of the past (21st century cultural stagnation), Waititi locates a new potential object for the nostalgic gaze with Jojo Rabbit: unpleasant and traumatic events themselves.

Television

Why I Did Not Watch 'Hamilton' on Disney+

Just as Disney's Frozen appeared to deliver a message of 21st century girl power, Hamilton hypnotizes audiences with its rhyming hymn to American exceptionalism.

Music

LA Popsters Paper Jackets Deliver a Message We Should Embrace (premiere + interview)

Two days before releasing their second album, LA-based pop-rock sextet Paper Jackets present a seemingly prescient music video that finds a way to ease your pain during these hard times.

Books

'Dancing After TEN' Graphic Memoir Will Move You

Art dances with loss in the moving double-memoir by comics artists Vivian Chong and Georgia Webber, Dancing After TEN.

Music

Punk Rock's WiiRMZ Rage at the Dying of the Light on 'Faster Cheaper'

The eight songs on WiiRMZ's Faster Cheaper are like a good sock to the jaw, bone-rattling, and disorienting in their potency.

Music

Chris Stamey Paints in "A Brand-New Shade of Blue" (premiere + interview)

Chris Stamey adds more new songs for the 20th century with his latest album, finished while he was in quarantine. The material comes from an especially prolific 2019. "It's like flying a kite and also being the kite. It's a euphoric time," he says.

Music

Willie Nelson Surveys His World on 'First Rose of Spring'

Country legend Willie Nelson employs his experience on a strong set of songs to take a wide look around him.

Music

Gábor Lázár Is in Something of a Holding Pattern on 'Source'

Experimental electronic artist Gábor Lázár spins his wheels with a new album that's intermittently exciting but often lacking in variety.

Music

Margo Price Is Rumored to Be the New Stevie Nicks

Margo Price was marketed as country rock because of her rural roots. But she was always more rock than country, as one can hear on That's How Rumors Get Started.

Music

DMA'S Discuss Their Dancier New Album 'The Glow'

DMA'S lead-singer, Tommy O'Dell, discusses the band's new album The Glow, and talks about the dancier direction in their latest music.

Music

The Bacon Brothers Deliver Solemn Statement With "Corona Tune" (premiere + interview)

Written and recorded during the 2020 quarantine, "Corona Tune" exemplifies the Bacon Brothers' ability to speak to the gravity of the present moment.

Music

Garage Rockers the Bobby Lees Pay Tribute to "Wendy" (premiere)

The Bobby Lees' "Wendy" is a simmering slice of riot 'n' roll that could have come from the garage or the gutter but brims with punk attitude.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.