I recently went on line to buy some socks and bought a big screen TV instead. No value judgement here. They are both fine products which I needed. (Yes, I needed the big screen TV.) I only mention it to point out how we sometimes begin a day with one destination in mind and end up arriving somewhere totally different.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a review of what may be my favourite movie of the year, Ramin Bahrani’s 99 Homes. If you haven’t seen it, put it on your list. A few days later, I read multiple essays about the lack of gender equality among film critics and how this imbalance affects the cinematic product that comes out of Hollywood. After getting over my initial defensive reaction (after all, I am a male reviewer), I began to consider that there may be something to this argument. So I decided to gauge my own reaction to two particular movies which I thought might provide a good test case.
The first was 99 Homes, a story which centres on two men brought together by the collapse of the housing market in 2009. The second was Freeheld, a story about two women brought together by their love for each other, and then magnified by the issue of same sex partner rights and gay marriage. Since I already knew I loved the movie about the two men, I was curious to see whether I would be equally enamoured with the story of the two women.
Now, before you go shooting holes in my logic, or pointing out that a reviewer should never walk into a performance with an agenda, I’ll save you the trouble. I know all that. But I did it anyway, because sometimes critics – like scientists, judges, and umpires – do have an agenda.
Anyway, here’s what I found: I did like 99 Homes significantly more than Freeheld. But in reading other critics, which I never do before I see a movie, I became aware that I actually liked Freeheld a lot more than most critics. 99 Homes is brilliant because it not only tells a great story ripped right out the headlines, but it also delves deep into the heart of a man to dramatise how the best of intentions can be turned and moulded into something different. How thin the line is that separates the noble from the callous. It offers detail and ambiguity in equal measures. It stays with you a long, long time.
Freeheld, on the other hand, tells the true story of New Jersey detective Laurel Hester, who fought her county board of freeholders over her pension benefits after she was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2006. Hester wanted those benefits to go to her domestic partner, a younger mechanic named Stacie Andree, just as they would have had Hester been legally married to Andree. That option did not exist in New Jersey in 2006, and so the freeholders were denying the benefits.
The first act of Freeheld, in which we meet the closeted Hester as she goes about her job, and then in turn meets the more open Andree, is the best part of the movie. Julianne Moore is a genuine stand-out as the older detective, and Ellen Page (who co-produced), gives perhaps her best performance as the simple, straightforward Andree. The scene in which Andree asks Hester for her number, and the subsequent scene in which she recoils at the gun Hester always carries, are very strong moments for the actress. Later, as Hester’s cancer destroys her body, Moore gets to show off all the gifts we’ve come to expect. Page also gets one or two nice moments as the pressure of public scrutiny bombards her relatively simple mechanic.
But the key to the movie’s problems – the key to why it is not as good as 99 Homes – comes in the “one or two” reference. For as the movie moves into its second and third acts, it morphs from being a love story about two women in a difficult situation into a political drama about equality. Hester and Andree are never out of the movie for very long, but they essentially get bowled over by three other characters at the centre of the political battle.
Michael Shannon, one of the stars of 99 Homes, plays Hester’s long-time partner Dane Wells. In the first act, when he learns of Hester’s true sexuality, he is infuriated because she kept it from him. Shannon is so good that he leaves pretty strong hints that though her secretiveness is indeed a cause of his anger, there are other, more complex motivations under the surface. That, again, comes from the best part of the movie, where difficult human emotions are revealed as complicated and messy. Wells quickly puts aside his anger and becomes Hester’s greatest champion in her subsequent legal battle.
Josh Charles plays the youngest and newest of the five freeholders. He is very sympathetic to Hester’s request, but allows himself to be bullied by his older colleagues.
And Steve Carell plays a flamboyant gay activist who brings his media savvy and busloads of supporters to Freeholder meetings in a transparent effort to push for marriage equality. Neither Hester nor Andree is initially interested in scoring any broad political victory, but they eventually come to understand the universal significance of their battle.
So what you end up with in this love story about two lesbians fighting for equal rights, is a story, which for significant sections, centres on three well-intentioned white men who fight out a political battle. The movie never totally eschews the women’s personal story, but that takes a back seat to the politics. We get to know the women to a degree, and then they recede.
This is a problem, and the more I thought about it, the more I couldn’t ignore the fact that Freeheld, the love story about two lesbians fighting for equality, was directed by Peter Sollett and written by Ron Nyswaner. Were the characters played by Shannon, Charles, and Carell elevated because men were at the centre of the creative process? Did the political rise above the personal for the same reason? I can’t answer that. But it is worth thinking about.
I do not mean to suggest that men can’t tell stories about women. I do not mean to suggest that Sollett and Nyswaner in this particular movie had no grasp of the personal story. As I have said, I thought the movie as a whole was fairly good. But it could have been better, and perhaps if someone like Nicole Holofcener or Dee Rees was involved, it may have been. It’s obviously all just speculation, but it’s hard to ignore the irony in the fact that a movie about women seeking equality was written and directed by men.
But irony don’t keep my feet warm, and the other fact is that I still need socks.