The issue with issue films

Freeheld, starring Julianne Moore and Ellen Page, is a story that needs to be told, but maybe not like this.

Julianne Moore and Ellen Page in Freeheld

There was a time when issues movies were welcome, even necessary. Before social media made outrage a currency, people actually needed to be informed about the various injustices that plagued the world through fictionalized stories. For all of the flaws inherent in slacktivism and outrage campaigns, they have succeeded in giving civil rights issues a visibility and breadth that a film like Freeheld, for all its good intentions, cannot. I don’t know if that means that issues movies are passé, necessarily, but it certainly means that an old-fashioned approach like the one taken by Peter Sollett in this film might be just that: old-fashioned.

Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore) works as a detective in Ocean County, New Jersey. As one of the only women on the force, she’s very protective of her private life — especially since she’s deeply in the closet, driving hours away from home to play in a lesbian volleyball league. That’s where she meets Stacie (Ellen Page), a spunky young mechanic who attempts to draw Laurel out of her shell. Even as their relationship progresses, Laurel is wary of admitting her homosexuality to her colleagues, especially her partner Dane (Michael Shannon), fearing that this will affect her position on the force.

Just after Stacie and Laurel move in together, however, the news hits: Laurel has advanced, untreatable lung cancer. In an attempt to get her affairs in order, Laurel learns that since same-sex domestic partnerships are not recognized by the state of New Jersey, she cannot give her pension to Stacie when she passes. The only way to get this reversed is to convince the local board of freeholders to modify the law. The bad news? The board of freeholders is made up mostly of stubborn old white conservative dudes who have no interest in the case at all.

As with any movie based on a true story, the core of Freeheld is affecting. The injustices at hand are actually quite compelling and it’s easy to see why this seems like an important film to make. But like so many issues movies, it reduces the very real lives of people into a cut-and-dry courtroom drama that feels ripped out of the pages of a Hollywood screenwriting handbook circa 1988. The rapport between Moore and Page feels very real, but everything else does not. All of the supporting characters feel like cogs in a wheel that slowly but surely turn in order to lead the poignant last courtroom scene. Steve Carell is on-hand to lend some levity as a flamboyant gay marriage activist who takes Laurel’s case under his wing. All evidence points to the real Goldstein being just as much of a ham as Carell portrays him to be, the character of Goldstein in the film feels inorganic and broad — a very conscious dash of spice in a movie that is very pointedly about county legislature.

That’s not to say that Freeheld is a total wash. The performances are pretty uniformly decent (though the “watch-Julianne-Moore-slowly-die” genre is getting a bit saturated, if I must admit) and the film is not altogether cheesy in the way that the worst, most handwringing of these issue movies can be. The problem with Freeheld is that it never stops feeling like a movie. It never transcends the part where you sit down to see movie stars teach you about a real-life case where someone was wronged. There’s already a documentary about Hester that covers the same ground without the grandstanding jury speeches, slow claps and the minor character who reveals his homosexuality at a key moment to show support for Hester. I’m not denying that this is a story that deserves to be told, but maybe not like this. ■

Freeheld opens in theatres on Friday, Oct. 16. Watch the trailer here: