This review originally appeared on Cinedelphia.com
My feelings about Freeheld are difficult to pin down. As a movie, stirring performances from Michael Shannon & Ellen Page buoy an otherwise clumsy script, shifting tone, and one-dimensional antagonists. But as a cinematic spotlight on a social issue I was previously ignorant to, I’ll be damned if this true story of a lesbian couple’s quest for equality didn’t arouse a strong emotional response that has stayed with me for days. And for that reason if nothing else, Freeheld is required viewing.
In 2002, New Jersey police detective Laurel Hester was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. Her diagnosis made death an almost certainty. As she got her affairs in order, Hester’s pension was denied to her domestic partner, Stacie Andree. As her health diminished, Hester’s resolve for equality grew, and a singular cry for humanity sparked a movement. 13 years later, in 2015, gay marriage is legalized at the federal level.
Freeheld picks up at the meet-cute of Detective Hester (Julianne Moore) and Stacie (Ellen Page) at a volleyball game several hours from Hester’s home. Hester is one woman among many men at the precinct, but she lives for the badge and takes painstaking measures to ensure she does not increase the odds of discrimination by being outed as a lesbian. Stacie, much more comfortable in her own skin, finds Hester’s plight frustratingly endearing, despite being in similar circumstances as a whiz-kid car mechanic. Their relationship flourishes and plays out truthfully on-screen thanks to the grounded, relatable chemistry between Moore and Page. Hester’s dynamic is similarly strong with her partner on the force, Detective Dane Wells (Michael Shannon). They echo hard-nosed siblings, exchanging outward affection for an appreciative glance or head nod. When Hester’s fight begins, the personal anguish and ultimate courage exhibited by Page and Shannon in their roles is nothing short of awe-inspiring. These complex interpersonal relationships form the heart of Freeheld and are what keep the film from becoming unapologetically manipulative schlock.
The script from Ron Nyswaner, who was nominated for an Oscar for penning Philadelphia, does not do Freeheld any favors. The dialogue here is so expository and on-the-nose that it would have been cringeworthy without the nuanced character work from the cast. Thankfully, Michael Shannon is quietly revelatory and Ellen Page is truly heartbreaking. Add Moore’s earnest turn as Hester and Freeheld strikes a chord that elevates the material to the level the real-life counterparts deserve. Sure, Steve Carrell’s appearance as a cartoonish gay rights activist named Steven Goldstein completely uproots the hard-hitting courtroom drama, but I cannot fault Carrell for creating laughs as intended by the writer.
The most sobering and infuriating notion evoked by Freeheld is the reality that this injustice occurred mere years ago. A true love story interrupted by tragedy is unnecessarily complicated by unfathomable, stubborn adherence to tradition, and Freeheld does a great job of demonstrating the asinine laws that drove marriage laws and spousal rights until recently. It is simultaneously a triumph in progress and a reminder that we still have a long way to go to realize Dr. King’s dream for the United States of America. Based on the headlines filling the news in recent memory,Freeheld’s message is as vital as ever. And so, despite the fact that it falls short of being a great film, Freeheld is a movie I highly recommend seeing.
7.5 out of 10.