By Hans Pedersen, October 2015 Web Exclusive.
Lighter on the romance than it is on political drama, Freeheld is a fast-moving story that elicits righteous indignation and packs an emotional wallop. While predictable at times, this tale about the struggle for equal rights for same-sex couples could become another bedrock of LGBT cinema alongside such classics as Milk, The Kids are All Right and Philadelphia.
In fact, screenwriter Ron Nyswaner follows a formula similar to his film Philadelphia in some ways. Directed by Peter Sollett, Freeheld is based on the Oscar-winning documentary short about the battle for pension benefits that was launched by a dying New Jersey police officer and her domestic partner. Notably, this true story underscores how much public opinion about same-sex marriage has swiftly changed in the past decade.
Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore) is a 23-year veteran of the police force in Ocean City, N.J., when she falls for Stacie Andree, a 20-something mechanic, back in the year 2002. Laurel is an exemplary officer who’s in line for a promotion to lieutenant, and remains in the closet for fear her sexuality could jeopardize her chances.
Despite their age difference, Laurel and her partner Stacie (Ellen Page) become inseparable and find a fixer-upper that serves as their perfect home. But they’re robbed of a lifetime together when Laurel gets a fatal cancer diagnosis.
When Laurel notifies county officials, known as the freeholders of Ocean City, that she wants to leave her pension to her domestic partner, Stacie, her request is denied. State law gives freeholders the right to recognize the partnership, so the arbitrary nature by which they make their decision seems particularly backwards and callous, especially now, in an era when same-sex marriage is legal across the land.
It’s a simple request that nobody would think twice about now. But before marriage equality was the law of the land, of course, such a request sounds foreign to the ear of most conservative Christians, and even many Americans. Stacie and Laurel ultimately go public with their demand for equal treatment as a married couple.
What’s most striking about the entire story is that Laurel does not even really want "gay" marriage – she says she just wants equality. It’s a reminder of how much attitudes toward same-sex marriage have changed, even within the LGBT community, and how few options we had just 10 or 15 years ago.
Laurel’s partner on the job, Dane Wells (Michael Shannon) supports her all the way, but encounters reluctance from their coworkers on the police force as he tries to recruit their help and rally support. Shannon delivers a near-perfect performance here, and like Denzel Washington’s character in Philadelphia, the emphasis placed on this detective may be intended to give straight audiences someone with whom to identify.
Steve Carell plays a Garden State LGBT activist and self-proclaimed “Jewish homosexual” who cherishes political theater, and is capable of bussing in sign-carrying protesters at a moment’s notice. Playing the role with broad, comic flair, Carell brings the drama some lighter moments, but his caricatured manner seems out of sync with the tone of the rest of the film.
There’s a cartoonish quality, not only to Carell’s theatrics, but also to the group of extras playing protesters who seem to lack the spontaneity of real demonstrators. It’s a small but noticeable quibble: They behave in sync, in a staged manner, unloading from a bus with picket signs already up in the air, chanting in unison as they must have done at rehearsal a dozen times. A little naturalism in the school of Robert Altman, with overlapping dialogue or cross-conflicts, might have made the crowds of protesters seem a lot less like a group of people pretending to be protesters. They stand in glaring contrast to the magnificent work by Moore and Page.
Having recently come out of the closet, Page seems to be showing a whole new side to herself onscreen in this role. She appears both strong and vulnerable in ways we have not seen in her other work. And while Moore shines, playing Laurel with steely determination, somehow her character is sidelined during the battle for benefits in the final act.
Ultimately, the 100-minute movie does not spend nearly enough time with the committed couple in their final stages of the illness. Instead, we spend an extraordinary amount of time with county officials in their meetings, including Josh Charles, who plays the most sensible member of the bigoted county board. But his character feels like a redundant attempt to give audiences yet another character with whom to identify.
The quick pacing contributes to the success of this by-the-book drama, which wraps up with a moving sequence of photos from the real-life Laurel and Stacie.
Freeheld does a tremendous job of highlighting society's obvious prejudices against that existed just a decade or so ago. While well-intentioned and emotionally powerful, the filmmakers follow their formula to a T and avoid risks in the storytelling, but this satisfying movie ultimately delivers its message on point.
Freeheld is now playing at Harkins Camelview 5.