TIFF: ‘Freeheld,’ Adaptation of Oscar-Winning Doc Short, Sets Off Waterworks at Fest

In my nine visits to the Toronto International Film Festival, I can’t remember seeing a movie with an audience as emotional as the one at Sunday night’s Roy Thomson Hall world premiere of Freeheld, a drama based on the true story of a lesbian couple who, a decade ago, wound up at the center of a fight for equal rights when one of the women, a veteran cop, was diagnosed with terminal cancer but prevented from transferring her pension to her partner. (Their story was previously chronicled in a 2007 documentary short that won an Oscar.)

Even before the opening credits of the film — which was directed by Peter Sollett, stars Oscar winner Julianne Moore and Oscar nominee Ellen Page, and will be released by Summit on Oct. 2 — crying was audible throughout the venue; it never let up, and culminated in an enthusiastic ovation at the end of the film, not only for the movie and those who made it, but also some of the real people depicted in it who were in attendance.

This is not to say the film, which was written by Ron Nyswaner (an Oscar nominee for writing 1993’sPhiladelphia), is without its issues. It plays, at some points, like an episode of Law & Order, and at others like a Lifetime movie. Moreover, the 26-year age gap between Moore and Page makes it a little difficult to believe the two of them as a couple, even if there was a 19-year gap between their real-life counterparts. (The same issue has also been noted with Carol and, frankly, just about every movie Woody Allen has ever made.)

But at its core, this is an important story about a dark chapter in American history — and it has some very fine acting. Moore, who previously played a lesbian very memorably in 2010’s The Kids Are All Right, has the meatiest scenes and gives one of the most devastatingly authentic portraits of a cancer patient I’ve ever seen. (I wouldn’t rule her out as a possible best actress nominee for the second consecutive year.) Meanwhile, Page — who came out as a lesbian in 2014 and has since become an increasingly public advocate for the LGBT community — also pulls her weight (in what could be seen as a supporting role), while Michael Shannon and Steve Carell make the most of every scene in which they appear (in roles that are categorically supporting).

One can’t help but wonder if the film would have packed a greater punch had it been released prior to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in favor of gay marriage across America back in June. Regardless, while same-sex marriage is now the law of the land, there are also still plenty of people like Kim Davis who would like — and will fight — to see things return to the way they used to be. And as long as there are people like that, there is a need for films like this.

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