Freeheld is a gut punch of a movie. It’s Julianne Moore dying of cancer. Civil rights. Equal rights. Gay marriage. A flamboyant Steve Carell, whose comic relief has never been more welcome. It’s one of those movies that infuriates you because it’s based on something that should be easy and obvious, and yet close-minded, intolerant bigots impede upon the rights of others. For as much as the world is making progress to move beyond these issues, it’s important to remember the struggles that brought them to light.
Detective Laurel Hester (Moore) is a valuable member of the Ocean City, New Jersey Police Department. Her partner Dane (Michael Shannon) is a womanizer, but cares for Laurel and genuinely likes her as a person. Laurel’s secret is that she’s a lesbian; after a cute meet with Stacie (Ellen Page) at a volleyball game, they fall in love, buy a house together, get a dog, etc. They are as settled as any married couple can be, but it’s 2002 and gay marriage is not yet legal. This becomes a pertinent issue when Laurel is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, and the local government says her pension cannot be passed on to Stacie. Without the help of the pension, Stacie will lose their home after Laurel dies.
So begins the main focus of the movie, which is the struggle Laurel and Stacie face for equal rights. After all, they argue, if a heterosexual cop dies, his/her spouse would receive the pension no questions asked, so why shouldn’t it be the same for a homosexual couple? Unfortunately, the town governing body, known as “freeholders,” don’t agree and deny Laurel’s request to allow Stacie to receive her pension. Dane helps them fight the injustice, as does the leader of a group called Garden State Equality, Steven, played by Steve Carell with great energy that appropriately offsets the story’s otherwise dour proceedings.
As we expect, Julianne Moore is fabulous here. Fresh off her Oscar-winning turn playing an Alzheimer’s patient in Still Alice, she transforms from a strong and able detective into a frail, dying woman who seeks peace of mind and justice. It’s ironic, of course, that Laurel fought for justice her entire career, only to endure a notable lack of it toward the end of her life.
Page is solid as Laurel’s significant other, but what’s interesting is that the focus moves away from Laurel and Stacie’s relationship and onto their fight for equal rights. It’s a bit of an abrupt transition, and director Peter Sollett (Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist), working from a script by Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia), doesn’t make it smooth. It’s like a two-act play without an intermission.
Here’s another issue: It’s not Laurel and Stacie who do the fighting, and they really can’t, what with Laurel’s quickly deteriorating condition. So the fight manifests in the best way it possibly could when rallying support for a cause: From the public at large. Men, women, children, black, white, doesn’t matter. Only the pigheaded white men with power (not all of them, but most) don’t see the injustice of the policies at hand.
It’s inspiring to see the support Laurel and Stacie receive, but things get murky when Steven broadens the struggle beyond what Laurel and Stacie desire, which distorts the integrity of the fight. Put another way, all Laurel wants is for Stacie to receive her pension, and we want that, too, because we saw them become a loving couple. When larger elements such as marriage equality are added to the equation, we become less emotionally invested, which in an odd way isn’t fair to Laurel and Stacie.
Freeheld, based on actual events, is being promoted as a story that was a precursor to gay marriage being approved nationwide. That may be so. It also may just be a marketing tool. Regardless, on its own terms — and not necessarily as a sociopolitical statement — it’s an emotional drama that allows us to invest in its characters and root for the right thing.