‘Freeheld’ delivers surface-level equality message

Rushed pacing and pandering politics hinder otherwise-compelling LGBT+ film

I’ll admit it: A film promising Ellen Page as a small butch lesbian who would fall in love with a tall-and-suited Julianne Moore initially made my fragile gay heart skip a beat. Freeheld is a film based on the true story of Laurel Hester, a cop who develops terminal cancer and battles bureaucracy in attempt to make her partner Stacie Andree the beneficiary of her pension upon her death. Despite its hard-hitting themes of true love and human rights, Freeheld falls short on its character development and political depth.

At first glance, the story of a dying lesbian cop fighting the system for the woman she loves seems compelling; unfortunately, the film tries to do too much with characters it fails to develop. The story spans their entire relationship from the moment they meet, and without taking time to really develop their characters beyond small-butch-mechanic-lesbian and closeted-bitter-cop, it doesn’t leave room for the audience to grow fond of their relationship beyond a surface level. Without taking that much-needed care in developing characters past a few simplistic traits, the potentially compelling storyline is left with no foundation to support it.

Beyond the details of filmmaking that hindered Freeheld’s potential, the politics behind its core sentiment were underwhelming at best. Despite a likely well-intentioned message, the framing of Laurel and Stacie’s case came off as the familiar “gay people are just like everyone else” narrative. Rather than letting their relationship and struggles stand on their own, they are constantly measured by heteronormative standards. Though it is true that same-gender couples often have to prove themselves in a society which discounts their relationships, it was disappointing to see the film’s core message do the same thing. Stacie’s claim to her dying partner’s pension benefits is rooted in the sentiment that, because they owned a house and a dog and worked hard – whatever that means – they should be entitled to the rights awarded to straight couples.

The unfortunate reality is that this type of political activism behind LGBT+ rights is often successful because it lets straight and cisgender people feel comfortable in their complacency. Though Freeheld comes across as a politically relevant and potentially hard-hitting true story of capital-E Equality, it fails to address or subvert Hollywood’s tendency to hold gay people to norms which were never made for them.

Despite my retrospective critiques of the film’s politics and character development, the actual experience of watching the film – as a lesbian who is constantly seeking literally any crumb of representation – was still emotional. It may not have been exceptional, but the concept of fighting for justice for the person you love is compelling nonetheless. And if we’re being honest, Ellen Page in cut-off flannel was enough to get me to the cinema for this one.

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