“Freeheld” Is Wonderful and Will Make You Cry Nonstop For Two Hours

freeheld-exclusive-poster-1 Honestly, I almost cried after Stacie and Laurel’s first conversation — in the parking lot, after volleyball, when Stacie’s friend teases her into summoning the guts to ask a pretty woman for her number — just thinking about how eventually Laurel was going to die. Laurel was going to DIE and Stacie wasn’t gonna get her pension! Look at them, innocently folling in love, unaware that DEATH LURKS around the corner! In between the moment they first met and the end of the movie, there were infinite opportunities to cry. The last half-hour is definitely peak crying time, only a superhuman could make it through the last half-hour without getting a little teary-eyed. If you’re interested in weeping for about two hours, I cannot recommend a better dark room in which to do so than a movie theater screening Freeheld.

Also, if you’re interested in watching a really solid film with a lesbian couple smack dab at the center of a small story with national implications, I cannot recommend a better place to do so than in a movie theater screening Freeheld. It’s not without lightness, either, or humor in fists, humor at the moments when you most need it (because you were just crying). It’s a real rollercoaster, y’all.

Freeheld tells the bittersweet true tale of accomplished New Jersey detective Laurel Hester (Julienne Moore) and her eventual domestic partner, auto mechanic Stacie Andree (Ellen Page). Despite their nearly 20-year age gap, they fall in love, buy a house, get a dog, and plan to spend their lives together. Laurel is driven, professional and very closeted at work, even to her police partner, Dane Wells (Michael Shannon), and Stacie tries to lovingly nudge her out of the closet. Then everything falls apart: Laurel is diagnosed with lung cancer and a handed a very slim chance of survival. Her petition to give her pension to Stacie is denied by the conservative Ocean City Board of Freehelders, and that’s when the fight at the center of the movie begins. Steve Carrell plays Garden State Equality activist Steven Goldstein, a character who may seem over-the-top to the uninitiated but honestly, everything about him rang true to me. I’ve known many Steven Goldsteins! When he first shows up in the movie it’s a bit jarring — he’s a comedic actor in a drama, after all — but eventually you come to rely on him for the very same reason he felt jarring: he’s a comedic actor in a drama.

There are neatly defined villains and relatively predictable arcs for the bad-guys-turned good guys, sure, yes, absolutely. But as a member of a population so egregiously underrepresented in popular film — lesbians — none of that really matters to me. Sure, the film deals in tropes from time to time, but usually those tropes aren’t employed in stories about us, because so few stories about us are ever told. Prior to this movie we’ve had very limited exposure to “true stories” about our history in major motion pictures, unless you count the story of Aileen Wournos. Yes, there are lots of lesbian movies out there and we recently found over 100 worth watching, but if you want to talk about big-studio personal stories (fictional or real) with political implications and historical relevance in mainstream cinema, we have Milk, Philadelphia, Angels in America, Pride, Boys Don’t Cry, and the recent exercise in audaciously white-washed and horrible filmmakingStonewall. But it’s hard to find a story with lesbians at the center. Here, now: this.

At a personal level, a lot about the couple’s dynamic, personalities and background were jarringly familiar in how it resembled my own relationship. The age gap, first of all. The fact that my fiancé looks like a composite combination of Stacie and fictional Stacie. The working-class short tomboy with a truck who fixes things and knows how to garden and dates the middle-class tall blonde unflinchingly committed to her all-consuming career? Familiar. Even how Ellen Page talked sometimes was so familiar it gave me goosebumps. Not just the broad strokes, either, but little details here and there, ones I won’t get into because I’m not gonna tell you the whole movie and you probably don’t care. But it was … bizarre. It was so, so bizarre. Something I never thought I’d witness, not in a movie theater. Did I mention that everybody in the movie theater was weeping? We wept. We WEPT.

This is a good movie and we don’t get a whole lot of those about our lives, with actors as committed and fantastic as Page and Moore are in this film. (Moore actually frequently plays queer women characters, including roles in The Kids Are All Right, The Hours and Chloe.The film has been criticized for dwelling too long on the story of Dane Wells, making the queer story “about straight people,” but no, not really, only insofar as progress was impossible to make back then without the support of straight allies. Nobody handed out cookies, there was no inspirational orchestral music when Dane summoned the spirit to stand up for his beloved co-worker — and we didn’t see Dane’s family, his home, any part of his life that wasn’t also part of Laurel’s. This was Laurel and Stacie’s film, from beginning to tearful end. 

Roland Emmerich has made a bunch of noise regarding his conviction that Stonewall, which was trashed by reviewers and bombed at the box office, needed a “straight-acting” fictional gay man at its center in order to connect with straight viewers. This is a ridiculous concept to begin with, considering how adept humans are at connecting with, say, movies about talking horses or aliens. But sure, any ultra-niche story could deter audience members from outside that niche, particularly if it’s not very good to begin with. I don’t think it’s fair to extend the criticism leveled at Stonewall and The Danish Girl to Freeheld, though. It told an entire story, and straight people were involved in the story — and not that involved, honestly, I don’t think Laurel’s sister had more than two lines. But we don’t live in a queer vacuum. I mean, personally, live in a queer vacuum, I’m practically a separatist, but Stacie and Laurel didn’t, and the balance was handled with relative delicacy, in a manner that honored the experience in all its complexities. (Or maybe it’s just that those few police department scenes were a welcome reprieve from all the weeping at the hospital.)

We’ve got a long ways to go when it comes to lesbian representation in mainstream film — Freeheld is white as snow, behind and in front of the camera, of course, and was written and directed by men, like 93% of films are these days. There are so many more diverse stories to tell that I hope women get the opportunity to tell. But go see this. Go see Grandma, too, and go see this. Bring Kleenex or wear a dark hoodie and maybe don’t go with somebody you’re trying to impress (maybe take someone you’re trying to impress to Grandma, because that only made me cry three times and my makeup pretty much stayed put), but go. Ellen Page looks really cute in a denim vest, and her volleyball team is called the Spike Dykes, and it was being in this movie that made her realize it was time to come out, thus forever changing “Valentine’s Day” into “Ellen Page Day.” It’s beautiful and it will break your heart right open.

Riese is the 37-year-old CEO, CFO and Editor-in-Chief of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker, low-key Jewish power lesbian and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and then headed West. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 2738 articles for us.

29 Comments

  1. Yes! Right there with you and the weeping for the back half of the movie. And I grinned into the dark through every second of front half! Those falling-in-love scenes were SO ADORABLE. This movie made my heart hurt. In a beautiful way.

  2. I am so fucking excited to see this movie and cry for two hours straight. When I was seventeen and touring colleges as a gay New Jersey teen, less than a year out from my mom’s own cancer-death, I ended up at Middlebury on the night that Freeheld-the-documentary was being shown, with a Q+A with its director, Cynthia Wade. I left my dad in our weird hotel room and walked across the campus and sat in the back of that theater and sobbed. At the end, I went up to Cynthia and in one long breath I said, I’mfromNewJerseyandI’mgayandmymomdiedfromcancer, and she hugged me and the gay Middlebury kids hugged me, and they told me I had a place with them there.

    Granted, I ended up at Vassar. But that was a really important experience for me, because it was one of the very first times I felt seen by a queer community, and I’m grateful for that, and grateful for the people who have carved out space for this story to be told.

  3. So basically the movie is mediocre except that it’s about lesbians so it doesn’t matter?
    The reviews have not been good. I don’t care to see a depressing movie on top of everything.
    I’m way more excited about Carol, with cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara: looks phenomenal AND a happy (somewhat) ending.

    • I actually really loved the movie, and think a lot of the iffy reviews are coming from the fact that it’s about 50% standard Hollywood inspirational movie, and 50% slightly more complex storytelling.

      So there are some familiar beats that the serious film critics like to dump on, but also complexities and ambiguities that undercut them. For example, we get to see more of both women excelling at work than is normal for films focused on a relationship, but given that they are both working hard to succeed in male-dominated fields, I loved how that rounded out the characters & their choices.

      The gay activist Steve Carrell plays would be a heroic figure in another film, but here there’s a palpable sense that he’s out of step with what Laurel & Stacie want and that his approach might do more harm than good. Which felt like a more sophisticated take on activism that I’m used to seeing on screen. Likewise the attention Laurel’s straight partner gets as an ally.

      Above all, the film captures the disconnect between the public legal fight and the personal reality of these women, which is that one of them is dying and there can’t really be a happy ending in the traditional sense.

      I didn’t cry as much as Riese, but I genuinely loved the film, which I felt touched my mind & made me think about how & why we do activism & its costs, as much as my emotions.

      And it was frankly thrilling to see both this & Grandma close to each other–two films in which lesbians take center stage, and yet their lives are depicted as bigger than their relationships.

    • i wouldn’t necessarily say it’s been “wholly panned.” i didn’t want to read a lot of reviews before writing this, but since i’ve seen mostly-positive reviews from rolling stone, the av club, film school rejects, the wrap, new york observer and the village voice, to name a few.

    • I did my own mini-review further up the comment section, but I would echo Riese in saying yes, it’s really worth seeing, and much better than the (negative) reviews I read before led me to believe.

  4. *shakes fist at the sky*
    “Freeheld” doesn’t get its cinematic release until APRIL next year in Germany.
    Well, I already have made plans to get a flatscreen TV,a legally lent copy from the US itunes store, a bunch of friends over and some decent pizza sometime in January/February…
    *gnashes teeth*
    Thanks for the review,though, I’ll add Kleenex to my list.
    Argh.
    Did I mention all the ways that I love Julianne Moore?

  5. Ah. I really want to see that now. I’m glad you pointed out how most films are directed by men. I remember people complained about Blue is the Warmest Color was a man’s project. I loved that movie, even though there were some points where it was came through that the director was a man. Overall, excellent film. There are other “lesbian films” that are written/directed by women that are awful. AWFUL. But the reality is that most major films, period, are directed by men. Unfortunately.

  6. I was so excited to see this movie this weekend and then I realized its not in wide release? Does anyone know if it’s coming to all theatres eventually? Because I live in the middle of nowhere and now my weekend plans have changed to seeing the Martian, which as an astronomer makes me happy but as a person with a soul makes me sad.

    • It’s limited release on October 2nd, wide release on October 9th!

      I’m really excited to inevitably watch The Martian involuntarily while sitting on the couch of a family member or my fiancé’s family during a holiday of some sort and inevitably accidentally getting really into it because i’m vaguely drunk and it’s probably very well-crafted in that really predictable but somehow comforting way you require in the winter during a holiday

      • I am sure I will end up seeing this, even though I generally don’t go for movies that guarantee I will cry all the way through.

        What cracked me up were a few reviews complaining how “over the top” Steve Carrell was, because clearly none of those reviewers met the real Steve Goldstein. He’s like the human version of a tiny dog-incredibly energetic, has a ton to say, sometimes really really irritating but also has the right idea and the absolute best intentions. I can’t say I have always seen eye to eye with Garden State Equality, but “over the top” isn’t beginning to describe Steve Goldstein, and from the previews it really seems like Steve Carrell nailed the energy.

        • Wow, it is fascinating to hear that about Steve Goldstein!

          I thought the film’s ambivalent attitude to him–clearly affectionate for him & giving him the best lines, but also very clear that his approach was useful in some respects & terribly counter-productive in others–was one of the things that made the film stay with me long after I had left the theatre.

  7. I can’t wait to bawl my eyes out and swoon over Ellen Page and Julianne Moore, but they’re not showing it locally! (at least not for as far out as the local theatre’s websites show) So sad!

  8. Would love to cry at this movie in a dark theater if there were any screenings near me! It’s probably going to be the same case for Carol, which I was really looking forward to, too. :/ Rural queer woes.

  9. wow well i just watched this this weekend and again now 2 days later and I am a little bit in awe. It is so real and so well acted and so not about the straight people at all really and I am just overwhelmed with emotion.

    we have this and carol and herstory and steven universe?? that is so many good things on our screens about queer ladies in one year (those are just the ones I’ve seen) and I am just so monumentally excited for what’s coming if this trend continues. and to think my lesbian film initiation was claire of the moon…

    p.s. ellen page ily

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