Steve Carell plays real-life New Jersey gay activist Steven Goldstein in Freeheld but he does it as a comic turn (perhaps to apologize for the creepy gayness he portrayed last year in Foxcatcher), wearing a purple yarmulke and shouting “You have the power!” It’s a somber drama about a lesbian couple’s battle to win domestic partner rights and CarelI throws it slightly off key yet his wacky flamboyance poses an important question: Must gay characters always be presented as social standards or are they allowed emotional complexity?
Even though Freeheld dramatizes the story of the late N.J. police detective Laurel Hester and her partner Stacie Andree (their struggle was documented in an Oscar-winning short by Cynthia Wade also titled Freeheld), their history deserves to transcend politics. But this film, directed by Peter Sollett from a script by Ron Nyswaner, is primarily an example of indie-movie political point-making. Nyswaner wrote the script for Jonathan Demme’s 1992 Philadelphia (Tom Hanks won his first Oscar playing a gay AIDS patient who sues his employer for discrimination) and Freeheld is like Philadelphia II. It also suggests The Normal Heart II in the way Nyswaner replaces the stigma of AIDS with Laurel’s fatal illness—to sentimentalize the topic of gay rights. It’s a weak version of Larry Kramer’s fury.
Indie films that are aimed at a specific audience frequently condescend to what gay viewers presumably want, but this often turns out to be how gays fit into mainstream pigeonholes. Gays are pitied. This indie idea of supplementing social progress appeals to liberal-minded actors—like Carell but especially Julianne Moore and Ellen Page who play the Hester-Andree couple. But their sense of mission gets in the way of appreciating their human sensitivity and their art. Moore, a special friend to queer indie directors, makes Hester the big screen big-sister of TV’s Cagney and Lacey; her butch-femme demeanor is accomplished, if actressy. (Her Laurel’s weak, congested speech would impress La Streep.) Page’s Stacie is a bold flirt but then resorts to whiney, childlike pathos—an unfortunate limiting of her skill and personal commitment.
The most interesting scenes show Laurel sympathizing with a secretive female police witness and her co-workers (Michael Shannon and Luke Grimes) and N.J. commissioner (Josh Charles) demonstrating the humane forthrightness that is the film’s primary message. But this story—all gay stories—deserve better.
Smollett directs like a social worker, devoted to do-gooder propaganda. His best scene shows Laurel watching Stacie gardening outside the suburban home they’ve built together, It distills their deepest desires (what Stacie alludes to when testifying “We’re just average people, we have a house, a dog, we pay our taxes”). The beauty of that image transcends sexual politics but indie filmmaking is stuck at the level of propaganda—emphasizing the homophobic city council and Carell’s protesting outsiders in a timely clash.
This leaves the inevitable scenes of Laurel’s deteriorating illness, rather than creating rich scenes of personal devotion such as movies once specialized in before indie filmmakers gave preference to the “realism” of illness, suffering and political torment. It would not betray Laurel and Stacie’s struggle to depict them in a moment evoking George Cukor and Greta Garbo’s Camille, as women going through a passion.
Sure, movies can work as social instruction—change hearts and minds—but to constantly make propaganda puts gays in the same trap as African Americans who Hollywood always shows as Others, limited to being seen as types.
Indie filmmakers have the power (as in Carell’s rallying cry) to depict gay characters as more than political pawns or social martyrs; it would progress beyond AIDS-era tragedy. Imagine new films invested with the emotional, spiritual force and depth of personality that Visconti gave Dirk Bogarde’s Aschenbach at the end of Death in Venice. Imagine Laurel and Stacie as Camille and Armand. It would be revolutionary.
Freeheld is now in theaters. Watch this exclusive clip of Julianne Moore and Ellen Page discuss their roles in the film below: