TIFF Review: Freeheld
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Ellen Page and her girlfriend Samantha Thomas made their red carpet debut at the world premiere of her movie Freeheld in Toronto on Sunday night. It's about the fight for equal rights in domestic partnerships, which eventually laid the groundwork for where we are now in the U.S. with marriage equality. Like Into the Forest, Ellen produces and stars in the film, which she held the rights to for years.
Ellen says optioning Freeheld helped motivate her to come out and publicly reveal her sexuality. Ellen loves this movie. She's so proud of it. She and Julianne Moore love each other, and they really love TIFF. It's really sweet. In between junket interviews, they make each other laugh. They don't look at their phones. Julianne's publicist and my obsession Stephen Huvane was in the room while the interviews were going on. He knew he had nothing to fear when Julianne was with Ellen. They're true friends after working on Freeheld together and you can feel the love.
Also a "best friend" of Ellen Page? Ruby Rose. Stacie Andree, the woman whom Ellen plays in the film, was at the premiere too. She also has nothing but praise for Ellen and what she did with Freeheld in getting her and Laurel's story out there. Laurel (Julianne) is a longtime Ocean County detective in New Jersey, who, when she gets stage IV cancer, fights to give her pension benefits to her few decades younger partner Stacie. After a grueling legal battle with county officials, Laurel finally gets her wish, and this was catalogued in an Oscar-winning documentary short. Miley Cyrus has a song on the soundtrack too. Clearly, Team Ellen Page is popular.
It's a beautiful sentiment, except the movie is an "almost."
It has all the ingredients of a great one though: Julianne Moore, Michael Shannon, Ellen Page... but while they deliver as expected, it's just too schlocky. I loved the documentary. It's moving, it's important... you learn that Laurel doesn't want to be a gay rights activist, she simply wants equality and for Stacie to get the benefits she deserves under the New Jersey domestic partnership act. However, this act has several provisos that leave each county or jurisdiction with the ability to approve or deny these claims. In the case of Freeheld, initially, they're denied until the lobby becomes too strong. Michael Shannon is Laurel's partner and best friend with a crush on her, and he turns into her crusader.
Remember how Michael Shannon can be good in movies like Premium Rush while JGL can't? Exactly. That's Freeheld too. It's so-so. Why? Well, when you throw in Steve Carell as an OTT Jewish gay activist (seriously, as someone who is very proud of her own Jewish heritage, are you telling me Matthew Broderick was not available for this?), you up the camp factor. Then, when you have sappy sweet dialogue and budget sets and lighting? It makes it worse. Poor Josh Charles. He's one of the Freeholders on the committee that (initially) decides against giving Laurel her pension. He does some great showboat acting here because of his PRINCIPLES but there's hardly any payoff when the vote flips because you see his hesitation in his initial take on Laurel's case. Again, the movie is "almost" there.
There is nothing wrong with Ellen Page having such an emotional investment in this story. It clearly means something to her, and the subject is certainly moving. The documentary was so, so, so, well done. Julianne delivers another powerful performance, and sounds exactly like Laurel does in the doc. But, unlike her Savage Grace co-star Eddie Redmayne, she will not be contending for back-to-back TIFF-to-Oscar trophies this year. Not with Freeheld anyway.