Freeheld – Romantic naturalism forges into new territory. (Film review)
In this interview, Freeheld director Peter Sollett states his point that Freehelds purpose is romantic naturalism, that is to present love in a way that appeals to the broader conversation about what love is and what it looks like. This is usually a formulaic, identifiable love story that has traditionally been reserved for the heteronormative view of relationships. It is his intention to extend the potential audience base appealed to by the very successful 2007 film beyond a preaching to the converted aesthetic, and extend the conversational audience base for the story of two women with what a straight person might call a “normal” relationship, working through the difficulties associated with loving a person and making a life with them. This forms the justifiable base for Laurel Hester’s claim that they don’t want special treatment, she just wants justice for the woman she loves. Given this premise, to argue that Freeheld suffers under the weight of its TV of the week presumption issues a surface level judgement that imagines it is including the important political ramifications of this story, while in fact missing the primary political point. Freeheld wasn’t made for lovers of film, nor for the converted to its “cause”. It was made for the TV movie of the week crowd, the conservative middle of the road film watcher who needs a good cry and to feel better at the end of the film. In this aim, Freeheld can only be called a profound and resounding success, particularly in that it is alienating the “good movie judges” at every turn.
This perspective switcheroo transforms Freeheld from a straight-middle-of-the-road biopic meets hot political football into a marvellously complex interaction between what a film is and how it relates to the society to which it presents itself. In its efforts to impact a broader audience, it is remarkably successful, placing itself not only in its true to life white middle class setting (not to mention politically right police force) but as the love story of two women who struggle with the ramifications of the political impact on their relationship. Laurel Hester is the perfect right-wing lesbian icon. She’s a cop (true to stereotype) she’s keeping her sexuality private (in the home where it belongs) and she doesn’t want anyone to find out she’s a lesbian (appropriately bashful about her “unusual” tastes). Her partner Stacie Andree is not in agreement with Laurel’s refusal to make her sexuality an issue (or rather sees Laurel as caving to an insistence that her sexuality be an issue) but as in all relationships, negotiates compromises with the woman she loves (as does Laurel) over the landscape of their relationship. It is a compromise heterosexual women recognise instantly and have a strong affinity for. Couched in “morals’ they might “approve of” Freeheld suddenly looks precisely as it is – a love story about two people trying to live together in privacy and dignity.
Along side the use of Laurel Hester as the perfect vehicle by which to make forays into new emotional territory, is the use of the much maligned genre, the movie of the week love story. It’s the same old boring chauvinistic story, but the move of the week genre, or the TV movie genre is another female-centric genre maligned and denigrated for its laboured story, repetitious formula, surface level emotional engagement and happy endings, while male-centric genres like horror or car porn films, which labour under all the same tropes, are marked up, or languish under genre acceptance. There have been several films about famous women portrayed in this genre over the last couple of years. Reaching for the Moon (the love story between great poet Elizabeth Bishop and Lota de Macedo Soares) springs to mind immediately. Another is Flowers in the Attic, a film that went straight to the Lifetime TV network. When you consider Lifetime is in 82.4% of American households that have a television (compare this with Fox sports that is in 72.9% of American households) this genre of film is not one that should be ignored. If Freeheld’s primary purpose is to tell the story of Laurel and Stacie to audiences who would never place themselves in front of the 2007 documentary, then director Peter Sollett has gone about this in precisely the best way.
Judged as a mainstream, big screen Lifestyle-esque film, Freeheld becomes one of the best of its genre, with superb performances, engaged timeline plotting and powerful control over the emotional impact of cinema to engage its audience in its primary point – which is Laurel’s primary point – that these women are not looking for special treatment, rather equality. The sexual chemistry between Ellen Page and Julianne Moore is palpable and deep, while eschewing any gratuitousness which risks alienating its conservative female audience. The enemy, the all white, all male board of chosen freeholders are “normal blokes” trying to uphold principles and ideals they believe in. Considering they probably represent a fair whack of the audience’s husbands, the choice not to demonize them is a smart move. Interestingly, the all important legal battle at the centre of Laurel and Stacie’s love affair, and the reason people want to make films about them, comes down to the care of Stacie as a cops wife – not a question of love and compassion. Stacie makes it clear that because she can’t contribute to the mortgage, she wants to decorate the home and make it theirs. Laurel wants her to be able to remain in the home, after her death, so she can be reminded of the love they shared there together. This focus on the home that Stacie made out of the house that Laurel bought is an important resounding gong in the life of a conservative woman, and carries astonishing political capital. Women understand the important value of the supportive nurturing environment, and they know better than anyone, why the money that comes through the door is a joint effort. To place visual emphasis on Stacie building the home, choosing tile, tending the garden, playing with the dog and displaying collected trinkets from walks on the beach is more than schmaltz to women who do this for a living. It’s a very real enactment of what makes her entitled to 50% of what the partner brings back to the nest.
Freeheld is not Blue is the Warmest Color, but it never tries to be, and it never pretends to be. In many ways, its appeal to the every day is its downfall, making a completely ordinary film for completely ordinary folk to enjoy and critical analysis superficial and unecessary. However, given the importance and the opportunities for political advancement presented through this story, telling it over and over again in many different ways appears to be an excellent tactic in fostering understanding and awareness of what same-sex couples want, what they don’t already have, and what the difference between those two things are.