September 14, 2015

SHOWBUZZDAILY Toronto Film Festival Review: “Freeheld”


Events on the same-sex rights front have moved so quickly that FREEHELD, which is based on a true story from 2007, and has been in development almost since it occurred, now feels like something of a history story.  Not completely, of course–as the current situation of the Kentucky clerk who won’t issue marriage licenses demonstrates, the saga is far from over.  But just 8 years later, the Freeheld story now seems like part of the previous chapter.

Its controversy concerned an issue narrower than marriage.  In Ocean County, New Jersey, a 20+-year veteran of the police force named Laurel Hester (played here by Julianne Moore) was diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer, and wanted her pension benefits to go to her domestic partner, Stacie Andree (Ellen Page).  The domestic partnership was formally registered with the state, and New Jersey legislation permitted such benefits to be assigned to same-sex partners.  But the local Ocean County legislators, called “Freeholders” in the town jargon, voted against allowing it for reasons that had more to do with moral disdain and religious disapproval than legalities, and a furor ensued.

The weakness of Ron Nyswaner’s script (he also wrote the not-dissimilar Philadelphia back in 1993) is that when it reaches the legal fight, it becomes increasingly didactic and simplistic, designed more for rabble rousing than full understanding.  The good guys and women are all good, and the villains are one-note.  The character of the flamboyant Jewish gay man who leads the public relations battle on behalf of the women, played by Steve Carell as though he’d just watched a marathon of Jack’s scenes from Will & Grace, may very well be reflective of that real individual, but to 2015 eyes it feels like a cliche.

Nyswaner’s work is much stronger, though, in the early section of the story.  To its credit, Freeheld isn’t in a hurry to reach that legislative meeting; it takes almost half the movie before Laurel even goes to the doctor.  Until then, it sensitively lays out her character as a great cop closeted even from her partner (Michael Shannon, as effective a hero as he often is a villain) as she falls in love with Stacie.  Director Peter Sollett was behind the excellent indies Raising Victor Vargas and Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, and he’s a whiz at giving performers space to create their characters.  The interactions between Moore and Page, and Moore and Shannon, whose character proves himself a true friend and champion of the couple, are the best parts of Freeheld, and they set up the emotions so well that the flatter drama of the second half still has impact, especially when the script pulls out the stops for the final Freeholder session. (Lionsgate may reap the benefits when the Toronto Film Festival title opens nationally in early October.)  If Moore hadn’t just won the Oscar for playing a desperately ill woman, she could well have been in the running for this profile in courage role, and Page (whose own coming-out story has recently been news) has the best part she’s been given since Juno.  Josh Charles is also quietly convincing as the one Freeholder with inner conflicts about his vote.

Two or three years ago, Freeheld might have felt galvanizing; now it seems more like a TV-movie, despite sensitive photography by Maryse Alberti and a lived-in production design by Jane Musky.  It’s a step forward that this subject now requires dramatic substance equal to the slogans.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."