Not all that Free

Freeheld   A Film by Peter Sollett

This is a leukemia movie.  Also a gay and lesbian movie, and a film about social justice, but most basically, and most movingly, it is a film about someone who dies.  That’s the emotional focus.

As I walked out of the theater, I said to my wife, “Why didn’t they just get lesbians to play the roles?”  She said that Ellen Page is an out lesbian, but that the decision to cast a straight woman—Julianne Moore—in the other role was controversial.  It’s an issue that has been raised about this and other movies.

I bring it up because I couldn’t get it out of my mind that this was Julianne Moore I was watching as Laurel, not only in the romantic scenes but in her role as a police detective.  I’ve always thought of her as a willowy, very pretty, indie film type woman, wearing earth colors and owning a boutique somewhere, drinking herbal tea, and to see her pull a gun on people, or get dragged by a car when she was intervening in an investigation, was jarring.  As I’ve said before, what with special effects, anyone can do this—one of these days we’ll see Maggie Smith out there strong-arming some thug and knocking him to the pavement, stomping the hell out of him—but maybe not everyone should.

Then there were the love scenes.  Gay friends have talked to me frankly about a gay problem in dating—who’s in charge here?  Who makes the move?—and the early romantic scenes were suitably awkward and embarrassing, but I kept thinking, I wonder how Julianne Moore feels about this.  I wonder if she’ll be able to pull it off.  She did fine.  But it was on my mind the whole time I watched.

Ellen Page (Stacie) seemed more relaxed.  This in fact was my favorite among her movie roles.  She’s more butch than in the past, a quiet, shy woman, an introvert—though not a pushover—who works as an auto mechanic.  She’s the one who takes charge, and is rather obviously the top—the women don’t do much, though they’re obviously about to—and she seems right at home.  That’s why it’s so shocking when some hoods bother them when they’re making out and Laurel turns and pulls a gun.  “You carry a gun?” Stacie says. “On a date?” And I want to say, when you look like that?  Like Julianne Moore?

Things get more relaxed when the story flashes forward to a year later, and the women are looking for a house together.  The unease then belongs to people like the real estate agent, and to Laurel’s partner at work, Dane Wells (Michael Shannon).  He brings a housewarming present to Laurel, and takes Stacie, who is working in the garden, to be a hired hand.  Laurel hadn’t come out to her coworkers, felt that would sabotage her career, but at that crucial moment she comes out to Dane, who is hurt that she hasn’t done so sooner.  He’s a big macho craggy man, feels that partners in their kind of work need to know what’s up.  He’s got a point, but so has she.  He’s okay with what she’s told him, but not everyone on the force would be.

It seems crude to say, but I felt the film took a leap forward in authenticity when Laurel found out she had stage four lung cancer.  We no longer had to see Julianne Moore acting macho, but as an older women worried about her much younger partner, she was completely convincing.  Her concern is that the powers that be (the city’s freeholders, a new term to me) will prevent her partner from inheriting her pension.  That, as it turns out, is what they try to do.

The film suddenly came alive with the appearance of Steve Carrell as a loud, pudgy, obnoxious Jewish gay activist named Steven Goldstein.  Talk about playing out of role.  It is particularly jarring because Carrell and Moore were a couple (at least briefly) in Crazy, Stupid Love.  But I found him completely convincing.  He takes up Laurel’s case not because he cares for her, but because of his agenda: he’s a champion of gay marriage.  Laurel isn’t ready to say she’s for that, though she wants equality for gays and lesbians.  That seems a fine distinction.  The year is 2005.

The social justice aspect of the movie plays out predictably.  Steven rallies the troops and disrupts meetings, leads a boycott of the town.  But it is when Dane, and—eventually—other police officers stand up for Laurel that the city officials feel the heat.  We knew how that was going to turn out, especially because this movie was based on a previous documentary (which is a first to me, a feature film based on a documentary?).  The good guys won.

I was actually most moved, within that larger drama, by the love of the two women, the way they looked after each other as Laurel died, the sadness and unfairness of the whole situation.  I’ve always been in favor of gay marriage, have never understood why anyone is against it.  The opposition—from some of the cops, and nearly the entire board of freeholders—is mostly just locker room homophobia, white middle class straight men showing contempt for someone who isn’t like them.  It is when Stacie stands before the freeholders, and states her case in a halting but perfectly clear way, that the overwhelming injustice of their opinion became apparent.  Julianne Moore was remarkable in her transformation as a dying cancer patient, but in that late scene Ellen Page stole the show.

Finally for me it was a movie about a young woman who lost her lover too soon.  Such things happen all the time.  But this movie made us feel the pain of it.