The Director’s Cut: ‘Freeheld’ Disappoints

Catherine Ellsberg ’16
Staff Writer

Part of me hates writing this, mostly out of allegiance to the sorely missed Ellen Page and the usually dazzling Julianne Moore, but “Freeheld” is mediocre. As other critics have pointed out, this film did not have to be so off; unfortunately, be it a weak screenplay or the mishap of Peter Sollet’s direction, it languishes in tepid “could’ve been” territory. Described by critic David Ehrlich as a “glorified Lifetime movie,” “Freeheld” attempts to tell the true story of New Jersey detective Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore) and her partner, Stacie Andree (Ellen Page).

After more than two decades of service to Ocean County, Laurel meets and falls for Stacie at an amateur volleyball match. A year later, and after buying a house together, the two decide to legally become domestic partners. Amid this domestic bliss — with the couple owning a dog and a house, happily gardening together and cooking dinners at home — Laurel discovers that she has late-stage lung cancer. Given just a few months to live, Laurel realizes she needs to make arrangements for Stacie to continue to live in their home, which she cannot afford on her own. According to New Jersey state law, however, Stacie cannot benefit from Laurel’s pension; they would need to be officially married for that.

From this point forward, “Freeheld” sinks deeper and deeper into melodramatic waters; bogged down by overdone performances, the film cannot deliver on its initially promising (and true) storyline. Indeed, many have noted that the real-life story of Laurel Hester, who went from a closeted lesbian to an outspoken activist, is ten times more fascinating than depicted in Sollet’s film.

Part of the problem is that while “Freeheld” should — maybe even must — focalize the touching relationship between these two women, Moore and Page share little to no chemistry.  I realize others will not agree with me; my friend in the audience couldn’t help but blurt, “She’s so cute!” whenever Page was in the frame. But “cute” doesn’t cut it in what should be a heartbreaking, edgy performance. Instead, Page comes across as increasingly uncomfortable and awkward around Moore, making the central relationship unbelievable.

Moore steps up to the plate somewhat towards the end, when she must exhibit an impressive combination of fragility and verve as she tries to fight for Stacie’s rights. Unfortunately, every scene involving Steven Goldstein (a shrill and miscast Steve Carrell), a gay-rights lawyer representing Laurel, disrupts the appropriately somber pace and tone. Goldstein, as portrayed by Carrell, is flamboyant to the point of caricature (he introduces himself as “Steven, with a ‘V,’ as in ‘very gay’”), sporting a purple yarmulke and calling everyone “honey” and “sweetie.” This is a great shame; the desired comedic effect comes across as crass and disrespectful. Though Dane Wells (Michael Shannon), Laurel’s long-time work partner, brings a level of gravity to the film, he also occasionally veers into loud performance.

By the very end of the film, when everyone around me was appropriately sniffling with the weepy score, I left the theater cold and let-down. What a missed opportunity.

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