Freeheld (2015)

Freeheld is a re-enactment of the events covered in the 2007 Documentary of the same name, which won an Oscar for Best Documentary, Short Subjects. It was this week’s selection for the latest season of The Arthouse Film Festival. Currently, it’s had a limited release, but it will move to more theaters soon enough.

Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore) is a police detective in Ocean County, NJ. Her partner Dane Wells (Michael Shannon) is interested in her, but has not made any sort of overt ‘move’ towards that sort of relationship. It wouldn’t matter anyway, because she becomes involved with Stacy Andree (Ellen Page), who buy a house together and get on with their lives. They even file for a Domestic Partnership, which allows some, but not all of the benefits of a legal marriage.

Laurel becomes ill. She is diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, and her focus becomes making sure that Stacy receives her pension benefits after she passes on. Stacy is more focused on getting Laurel better. The Domestic Partnership law does not outright grant Stacy those benefits, since she’s not a NJ State employee, but a NJ County employee. It is said that the decision to grant the benefits is left to the discretion of the County Freeholders, who, traditionally, have only decided all their votes with a unanimous decision. They initially deny Laurel’s request. That’s when the fun begins.

A gay activist, Steven Goldstein (Steve Carell) hears of the ruling, and is determined to make them overturn it. He’s willing to pick up the fight for Laurel, as he sees it as one step closer to marriage equality. Laurel just wants what’s fair, and doesn’t want to raise a stink. Stacy urges her onward, as Laurel’s treatments kick into high gear.

This film has an undercurrent of acceptance, and a desire for equality, which is what Laurel wants. If the system wasn’t ready for that, then that’s OK, let someone else take up the crusade. There’s a lot of give and take, to get to the core of the issue, which is that people are essentially driven by the same needs – security, family, and a sense of belonging.

Overall, it’s a really good movie. Michael Shannon’s performance is a bit stodgy, as that’s what his character seems to be, but a lot of that is Shannon himself. I was originally seeing him as a wooden kind of guy, but his transition towards acceptance really works well. Steve Carell is a bit over the top in his performance, and I expected that, knowing the sort of characters he plays. Fortunately, all the players have dimensions and do change over time. In the post-movie discussion, I heard that the role originally was supposed to go to Zach Galifianakis, but there was a scheduling conflict. While he may have been too flamboyant, Carell manages to pull it off anyway.

There were more than a few “oh, look, it’s that guy…and that guy!” The freeholders were all made up of those guys, including Josh Charles, Tom McGowan, and Dennis Boutsikaris, to name three. They rounded out the cast well.

I do recommend this film. I haven’t seen too many Oscar-worthy performances this year, so this film may have some. I was stunned to see that the ‘song for the movie’ that rolls over the credits is “Hands of Love” was written by Linda Perry, and performed by Miley Cyrus (!). That will get a nom, fer sure.

Learning to Drive

Learning to Drive is a modest Independent film. The story starts in Manhattan with a cabbie, Darwan (Ben Kingsley) picking up a man fleeing from a restaurant. Ted (Jake Weber) hurries into the back, but his wife Wendy (Patricia Clarkson) is pursuing him. Ted confesses to Wendy that he’s leaving for his girlfriend, leaving her in tears. Ted hops out of the cab, Darwan takes her home. She is broken, but believes Ted will return. The “Seven Year Itch” and all that, she later confesses to her daughter, Tasha (Grace Gummer). Tasha has already seen her father, and he has filed separation papers. Wendy won’t accept it, but instead focuses on Tasha’s recent past, as she’s spent the Summer in New England, on a remote farm, and wants her mother to move up with her before the upcoming harvest, in a chance to get away from it all. Wendy is a Manhattanite, through and through, and doesn’t really want to leave – she doesn’t even have a license, because she’s never needed one.

Wendy decides that if she’s to visit (not stay) with her daughter, she’ll have to get there on her own. She contacts Darwan, who is a driving instructor during the day. He arrives for her first lesson, and she changes her mind. Darwin insists she sit behind the wheel, and walks her through all the things she’ll need to do to drive, with her balking. Next thing, she’s on the road, and thus their working relationship begins. We find that she’s been uninvolved in anything meaningful outside of her job, so she’s rethinking her general behavior.

We discover that Darwan is a Sikh who’s left India after being persecuted and was imprisoned for being a terrorist. We hear that his only remaining sibling, his sister, has sent her son to live in the U.S. She is also trying to finally arrange a marriage for him, to which he’s reluctant to do, given his past, and his pickiness.

If you hadn’t guessed, Learning to Drive is a metaphor for taking charge, and assuming control over “your” life. The plot is fairly predictable, but it’s a good drama that is a cut above your standard movie fare, bolstered by the great cast. Kingsley and Clarkson work well together, and none of the movie seems artificial. Clarkson gives a sincere performance, and Kingsley is quite subdued in his role.