Whether you're a casual moviegoer or a diehard movie buff, we've all become very familiar with the typical love story. Most of them play out in similar ways, from one plot beat to the next. Some filmmakers have managed to take this formula and create something truly masterful, but it's a rare occurrence. Marriage equality has been a trending topic for quite some time, so telling the stories of those that influenced the activist movement makes sense. Regardless of how tremendous a story is, the execution is key, and unfortunately, Freeheld lacks a much needed emotional punch. It tells an inspirational story, but the screenplay is undeniably forgettable.
New Jersey Detective Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore) has found the love of her life, who is a younger woman named Stacie Andree (Ellen Page). After becoming registered domestic partners, Laurel hears the tragic news that she has terminal cancer, leaving Stacie to take care of her. However, this illness isn't the only obstacle that the couple must overcome, as they must engage in a political battle to ensure that Laurel's pension benefits go to Stacie at the time of her death.
Freeheld tells the incredibly relevant and engrossing story of two women who fought for a greater good. It's clear that writer Ron Nyswaner's heart is in the right place, but he doesn't deliver it in a memorable way. The script seems confused about whether it wants to be a story about political activism or the love story between these two women. Since it continues to switch between the two, neither one feels entirely dissected. While we're naturally rooting for Laurel and Stacie, they're framed as being one-dimensional roles that we never truly get the opportunity to explore. On the other hand, it barely even scratches the surface of the fight for equality. In order to adapt this fascinating story for the screen, focusing on a more detailed picture of the couple would have been a much wiser choice than attempting to juggle these two monumental subjects.
However, Freeheld has its moments when it's quite genuine and touching. Laurel and Stacie have a heartfelt conversation on their first date that feels incredibly real. Another scene with such emotion involves Stacie struggling with an update regarding Laurel's condition in a conversation with Detective Dane Wells (Michael Shannon). When Freeheld feels sincere, it truly proves to have an effect on the audience. Unfortunately, there are only a few of these sequences, and a lot of unnecessary exposition in between that attempts to keep the two plot priorities cohesive. There are a lot of single incidents that happen, such as homophobic confrontations, which aren't handled very well. Since these encounters don't seem to have any lasting effect on either of them, they feel like random and pointless scenes that don't progress the characters or the plot.
As many of you will have guessed by this point, the third act is meant to be what brings on the tears. Unfortunately, the absurd amount of exposition and predictable tearjerker tactics are what removed much of the feature's emotional power. It remains to be an inspirational story that has helped change the way many individuals look at same-sex relationships, but the screenplay makes it feel robotic and cold. By doing absolutely nothing with the tired formula to make it stand out, director Peter Sollett and writer Ron Nyswaner have made a film that will be forgotten about over the course of the next year, much like any other romance flick out there. I know that it sounds like I'm being harsh, but Freeheld has moments of pure honesty. Unfortunately, the screenplay gives an extraordinary story a mediocre treatment.
The film's saving grace is its top-notch cast. Julianne Moore is absolutely phenomenal as Laurel Hester. She brings a lot of intriguing subtleties out of the character, such as her desire to control every situation that she's in. When she's battling two forces that appear to be impossible to fight against, her psyche is deeply affected. Moore is sympathetic, believable, and deeply captivating. Ellen Page is mostly convincing as Stacie Andree, although her character's big moment of realization feels highly muted. It's difficult to determine whether this is a fault in her performance, Sollet's direction, or Nyswaner's screenplay. Perhaps it's a combination of all three, but what should have been one of the film's biggest moments falls a bit flat. Otherwise, she has fantastic chemistry with Moore. Unfortunately, Steve Carell's comic relief is highly unnecessary, and comes across as inappropriate to the sensitive issues that the film is trying to discuss. It's a jarring transition that isn't very convincing.
It isn't always a bad thing when a film follows a formula, but it's what it does with that formula that determines how effective it is. Despite a phenomenal cast, Freeheld is familiar and forgettable. It tells an engrossing story that's relevant to the times, but gets lost when navigating the more complex elements. One minute it wants to be an intimate love story, and the next it wants to be a political drama. The filmmakers don't commit to either one, making it feel uncertain. Laurel and Stacie are remarkably fascinating individuals that should have been further explored, rather than used as a framing device for politics. Even so, it's worth renting for the performances alone. Julianne Moore and Ellen Page's chemistry is electrifying. Freeheld has a great story, but it isn't entirely successful in telling it. Rent it.