It’s starting to feel like a trend. With “Freeheld,” as with “Still Alice” before it, Julianne Moore gives a performance as a seriously ill individual that is stronger and more effective than the film that contains it.
Unlike its predecessor, which was only about a disease, “Freeheld” comes freighted with Hollywood social consciousness. The based-on-fact story of a dying New Jersey police detective who in 2005 fights to leave her pension to her domestic partner, “Freeheld” is a politically correct romantic weepy that plays in 2015 like a self-congratulatory victory lap for gay rights in general and same-sex marriage in particular.
FOR THE RECORD: In the Oct. 2 Calendar section, a review of the film “Freeheld” said that the real-life character of Laurel Hester played by Julianne Moore was a New Jersey State Police detective. Hester worked for the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office in New Jersey.
Make no mistake, those are important issues and hard-fought triumphs, and you would have to be a stone to be completely unmoved by “Freeheld,” especially with Moore as the star. But having its heart and mind in the right place is not enough to make this a better movie than it is.
As directed by Peter Sollett and scripted by Ron Nyswaner, who wrote the similarly earnest “Philadelphia” more than 20 years ago, “Freeheld” begins with a romance so sweet and so square it could have sprung from a same-sex Nicholas Sparks novel. (The real story won an Oscar when it was made into a short film with the same name.)
Met first is Laurel Hester, convincingly played by Moore as one tough, wised-up New Jersey state police detective, 23 years on the force, a woman who takes her job seriously and makes the kind of arrests that make local headlines.
Because she wants to be the first woman on the Ocean County force to be made a lieutenant, Hester has kept her sexuality a secret from everyone, even her equally hard-nosed police partner, Dane Wells (a quietly effective Michael Shannon).
All that starts to change at an all-female volleyball game where Hester catches the eye of Stacie Andree (Ellen Page), a considerably younger woman who favors a short haircut/plaid shirt look so different from Hester’s decorous ensembles that “The Lumberjack and the Lady” might have been a good alternative title.
Despite teasing from her friends, who call Hester “the princess,” Andree follows her passion and soon finds that dating a police officer, especially one who is resolutely in the closet for work reasons, is a challenge. (One of the film’s more amusing scenes has Hester wielding her service revolver at an unexpected moment.)
Before you know it, the two women have bought a house together, with the blue-collar Andree providing sweat equity by knocking down the old space and handling the dry wall for the remodel. A motorcycle rider and car lover, she looks for a job at a local garage, leading to one of the rare comic scenes to find humor in tire rotation.
Hester and Andree register as a couple under New Jersey’s Domestic Partnership Act, and then, as happens in the movies as well as in life, Hester goes to the doctor because she thinks she’s pulled a muscle and returns with a diagnosis of stage 4 cancer.
Because Andree won’t be able to afford their house without it, Hester wants her police pension to go to her, a request that even partner Wells doesn’t get at first, blurting out, “That’s for married people.”
A similar reaction dominates the Ocean County Board of Chosen Freeholders (hence the title “Freeheld”), the governmental body with authority over Hester’s pension, which rejects her petition because of “the sanctity of marriage.” (While this is no doubt exactly what happened, it’s beyond the scope of this film to present it in a dramatically involving way.)
The Freeholders rejection is not, obviously, the end of the story. Support for Hester begins to mobilize, including from her once reluctant partner Wells, though other fellow officers are initially not so sure.
Also involved, though much less effectively portrayed, is Steven Goldstein, the head of a group called Garden State Equality. A self-described “big loud gay Jew,” Goldstein, at least as played by Steve Carell, is more of a caricature than this film needs.
Though Goldstein views this pension fight as a steppingstone to same-sex marriage (as will today’s audiences), it is one of the strengths of Moore’s performance that she conveys Hester’s insistence that this is not about marriage, or any kind of special treatment. It’s about equality, plain and simple.
Though her screen time diminishes, Moore gets more compelling as her character gets sicker, and Page, who starts out uncertain, gains in confidence as well as the film progresses.
Yet it speaks to what is lacking in “Freeheld” that its most emotional section is that of the photographs at the close of Laurel Hester and Stacie Andree. Those pictures remind us that these events happened to real people, something the standard nature of so much of “Freeheld” makes it easy to forget.