Monday, September 14, 2015

TIFF 2015: Freeheld

Moore and Page as Laurel Hester and Stacie Andree
Freeheld (U.S., 2015) directed by Peter Sollett, Ryerson Theatre, 12.00p, 103 minutes

In this reenactment of a recent true story, Julianne Moore stars as New Jersey police officer Laurel Hester who is engaged in a legal battle to allow her pension benefits to be passed on to her domestic partner Stacie Andree (Ellen Page) - an important story told with middling results as a drama.

Laurel Hester was a closeted but highly successful detective before she met Stacie Andree, a much younger mechanic who avidly pursues the older woman. Stacie is out, has an excellent relationship with her mother, and is anxious that Laurel come out and acknowledge their relationship. Fearing repercussions from working in an all-male and a seemingly homophobic environment, Laurel keeps mum, even with her partner, fellow police officer Dane Wells (Michael Shannon). 

Until ... Laurel is diagnosed with stage IV cancer. Laurel requests that her pension benefits be transferred to Stacie upon her death but is denied by county officials. Steven Goldstein (Steve Carell), an openly gay and observant Jewish activist, seizes on the issue to push forward the issue of gay marriage in New Jersey. Carell is flamboyant, comical and lends a certain lightness to a very intense storyline. "It's Steven with a "V" which stands for 'very' gay," he informs the initially reluctant women.

Moore, always admirable in all she does as an actress, has a difficult role - playing a mortally ill person is a challenge, dying of cancer, a near impossible thing to portray realistically. Too little expressed or portrayed and it feels false, too much and it is devastating to watch. But she is sexily effective as the swaggering police officer taking down thugs and pursuing suspects (Laurel freaks Stacie out by pulling out a gun when the two women are menaced by a trio of foul-mouthed thugs - "Do you always carry a gun on a first date?" asks the bewildered Stacie.). Page is more successful in the film as the vulnerable and under-confident but determined partner of the stricken woman.

The drama feels forced and a bit cliched but the challenges the two women and the director face are formidable - the issues of inoperable cancer, homophobia, chauvinism in the workplace, bigotry at city hall - all difficult topics to handle without resorting to cliches and melodrama.

Sollett directed Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist (2008), much lighter fare, and with a defter touch. 

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