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‘Tis the season of the Important Film. It goes by other names—Oscar bait, issue movie, etc.—but the hallmarks of the Important Film are unmistakable. Often about a contemporary social issue such as racial justice or LGBTQ equality, the Important Film ostensibly exists to make an impact on society, but its real goal is to lure civic-minded audiences to the box office and win Academy Awards. It often features a lead character from a marginalized social group who takes a stand, suffers, and dies, but in death wins victories for others. It may or may not be based on a true story.
Freeheld may be the apotheosis of the genre. Peter Sollett’s LGBTQ drama checks every box on the Important Film list, while being dragged by the genre’s defining flaw: It works so hard to be important that it forgets to be good.
The film is based on a tragic yet uplifting true story: Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore) is a gay New Jersey cop, who, for years, hid her sexual identity from friends and colleagues. But when she falls in love with Stacie (Ellen Page), Laurel comes out, prompting anger and consternation in her blue-collar community. Even her trusted partner Dane (Michael Shannon) is miffed at the long-standing deception.
It’s a little rote, but Freeheld is watchable in these early scenes, mostly due to the magnetism of its stars. Moore and Page have decent chemistry, with the former deftly capturing the emotional complexity of living a newly embraced identity.
Of course, the couple’s happiness is short-lived. Laurel is diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer and tries to transfer her pension to Stacie, who has since become her domestic partner. The county executive boards (known as Freeholders) thwart her efforts, and a protracted battle ensues. It’s here that the film should start tugging at the heartstrings—courtroom settings are a shortcut to drama—but Freeheld takes an odd, misguided turn. Laurel and Stacie fade into the background, and the film shifts focus on two male characters who are changed by their struggle.
Dane actually gets the biggest, most important arc of the film. The gentle giant not only rallies his fellow cops to support Laurel’s case but ends up making the film’s big, climactic speech while Laurel looks on helplessly.
Josh Charles as Bryan Kelder—the freeholder who eventually urges his colleagues to vote in favor of Hester—also gets a surprising amount of screen time. We learn all about his family and his social standing among his peers (which is more than we can say about Laurel) before he finally gets to do the heroic thing.
And that’s the film’s biggest failure: To put these periphery characters into focus rather than giving more screen time to Stacie or Laurel. The film zooms in on Dane and Brian not because of who they are but what they represent: Institutional American power. The police and the government have the power to protect members of the queer community, and Freeheld dramatizes the shift that, off-screen, culminated in this year’s Supreme Court decision to legalize gay marriage.
It’s hard enough to keep an audience’s attention, but when a film puts its politics first, it’s nearly impossible. As the film progresses, Laurel’s fight becomes a national one. An LGBTQ equality organizer (Steve Carell) shows up to run the media campaign, but both Laurel and Stacie object to his presence. They don’t want to see their private lives turned into a national debate. They have a good point; I only wish the filmmakers of Freeheld had agreed with them.
Freeheld opens Friday at Landmark Bethesda Row.