Review: Freeheld (Sollett, 2015) – Special Screening of the SF Film Society

Still from the movie Freeheld

Freeheld, directed by Peter Sollett (Raising Victor Vargas, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist) and starring Julianne Moore and Ellen Page, is based off of a documentary short of the same title. The films depict the story of Ocean County, New Jersey, police lieutenant Laurel Hester’s battle to transfer her pension to her domestic partner Stacie as she dies of advanced stage lung cancer. Despite the fact that married heterosexual county employees are granted the very same right that Hester requests, the “freeholders,” elected members of Ocean County government, repeatedly deny Hester her dying wish. The outcome of Hester and Stacie’s fight is considered an early important milestone on the path toward gay marriage.

I had the privilege of attending a pre-release screening of Freeheld with Julianne Moore, Ellen Page, and Peter Sollett in attendance–and in the Castro, to boot (see below for the Q&A session I filmed). Needless to say, it was an appreciative audience, which made this ultimately Hollywood-ish film that much more entertaining. Moore is excellent as usual playing the tough Detective Hester (though I realized it was the second time this year that I’ve had to watch her slowly succumb to disease). Page, too, is quite heart-stopping as Hester’s young love Stacie (even for this heterosexual woman). The film opens with Laurel saving her partner Detective Dane Wells (Michael Shannon) in a drug bust gone wrong, and follows with a funny and sweet sequence of Laurel and Stacie falling in love before getting on to the real meat of the story. Steve Carrell brings some welcome comedic relief as a gay rights activist who swoops in to “help” the couple, while Shannon’s character adds a dose of emotional tension as Stacie’s “rival” and Laurel’s loyal friend.

Out of curiosity, I hunted down the documentary Sollett’s Freeheld is based on–pretty difficult to do even in this age of digitized media: the San Francisco Main Library had a copy, but it had to be watched on premises. Clocking in at just 40 minutes, the original “Freeheld” won an Oscar for Best Documentary Short in 2008. Excellent actresses both, Moore and Page mostly succeed in capturing Laurel and Stacie’s essence, both individually and as a couple (and, in fact, Stacie and Laurel’s family, as well as the documentary’s director Cynthia Wade, cooperated with the film’s making and approved the result). The story, too, is mostly accurate to the source material, though to add an extra hour to the narrative the screenplay introduces some not insignificant embellishments. Of course, even without watching the documentary you could spot these additions because how likely is it that Hester’s partner would have been secretly in love with her or that there really would have been someone as truly outrageous and hilarious as Steve Carrell’s Steven Goldstein? (Though I couldn’t help but smile when I saw the original Goldstein, who had mixed feelings about his portrayal. Carrell’s version is a caricature, yes, but caricatures are funny for their exaggerations of the truth…)

But it felt strange to watch the original after the fictional version. Without the suspense of not knowing exactly how the tide would turn, without the cheap but effective Hollywoodifications, the documentary seemed curiously dry when it should have been profound, moving, impactful. I was disappointed with the experience, but perhaps even more disappointed in myself for falling victim to the big studios’ gimmicks.

Not that I am altogether satisfied with Sollet’s version either, which does some discredit to the Ocean County Police Department by making them seem, for the most part, like a group of macho bigots. (The documentary shows only support and more support from Hester’s colleagues.) Such characterizations give us the satisfaction of experiencing both a righteous indignation at the bad behavior of others as well as the catharsis of seeing these prejudices eventually vanquished through dogged soapboxing, but they do no real work toward improving our understanding of the world or our fellow humans.

But Moore and her fellow talents make no bones about why they became involved in this project. They wanted the story to be told. And what about the documentary–wasn’t the story already told? Well, I saw first hand that little film’s eventual destiny. May Freeheld 2015 live longer and more prosperous.

Note: Cynthia Wade’s documentary short “Mondays at Racine” (nominated for an Oscar) is also excellent.