Freeheld is a movie with a to-do list.
The true story that inspired it — a story about a New Jersey police officer named Laurel Hester — is worthy of much more. In 2004, Hester was diagnosed with lung cancer. By early 2006, she was dead. She spent the months in-between suffering. Local politicians refused to grant a pension to her partner, Stacie Andree — though under the law, any straight cop would have been allowed to pass pension benefits to his or her spouse — so Hester fought. She petitioned and appealed and protested. Her battle galvanized local activists, sprung out from regional newspapers to national television. As her body withered away, Hester stood on the frontlines of the gay rights movement. And she won. Andree got a pension.
Freeheld () is too comfortable to rise to that legacy, the formula behind it too brittle. It’s almost a serviceable movie, a tear-jerker that summons the weepies with all the subtlety of an air-traffic controller — and yes, sometimes, that’s exactly what a movie needs — but director Peter Sollett steers Hester’s story through the deepest, calmest channels. It has no verve. There is no risk. It’s not difficult to imagine Ron Nyswaner’s marked-up script, each box checked alongside each sensibly planned beat, an ink accounting of Freeheld’s generic tone. Whenever Sollett trains his camera on a detail, or dwells on a tender moment, he diminishes it into something soft and warm. His movie is wrapped in goose down, all snug and cozy and safe. This isn’t a melodrama — it’s too yellow.
So, what’s left to buoy Freeheld? Thankfully, the actors. Julianne Moore plays Hester with grace, even as she strains to find depth in Nyswaner’s script. Ellen Page rises to Moore’s level as Andree, a confident woman who struggles to accept her lover’s terminal plight. She is at her best when that confidence sags, her eyes darting every which way as she muffles Andree’s fear and anxiety. It’s been far too long since Page has landed such a meaty role, and her performance unleashes so much of the talent that’s lurked in her tiny frame since Hard Candy and Juno.
Steve Carell careens into this movie as well, all loud noise and bravado as he plays Steven Goldstein, a gay rights activist who wants to leverage Hester’s plight for the battle to win gay marriage. He doesn’t quite belong in Freeheld — he’s big and fun, while Sollett keeps things small and sad — but his presence is a welcome diversion from the ordinary trappings that entangle Moore and Page.
As if Freeheld‘s instinct toward convention weren’t already strong enough, it pivots away from all of these characters in its last act to focus on the moral progression of Hester’s partner, a detective named Dane Wells. Played by Michael Shannon, Wells learns to accept Hester’s relationship with Andree; he tries to rally the other police officers to protest for her; and, in the end, he sways the political decision-makers to change their minds. While Shannon’s performance is solid — he’s forced to turn down his intensity in scenes with Page, and the subdued style suits him well — it’s frustrating to see yet another movie about gay rights gravitate toward the journey of a traditional protagonist. It’s just not interesting.
“My fight is not about marriage. It’s about equality,” Hester tells Goldstein in one scene, as he cajoles her into filming a commercial. “The only thing I care about is justice for the woman I love.” A better movie would’ve dwelled on this point, raising deeper questions about the struggles of a protest movement, as well as what it takes to protect the privacy and dignity of activists. Freeheld doesn’t bother to do that. Instead, it asks for tears.
Freeheld is rated PG-13 and runs 103 minutes. Opens Friday in area theaters.
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