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.
The fact-based 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 and same-sex marriage.
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Make no mistake, those are important issues and hard-fought triumphs. 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 (Raising Victor Vargas) and scripted by Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia), Freeheld begins with a romance so sweet and so square it could have sprung from a same-sex Nicholas Sparks novel.
Laurel Hester, convincingly played by Moore, is one tough, wised-up New Jersey state police detective. 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.
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.
They 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 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. But the Ocean County Board of Chosen Freeholders, the governmental body with authority over Hester’s pension, rejects her petition.
Support for Hester begins to mobilize, including from her once reluctant partner Wells. 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 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.
Cast: Julianne Moore, Ellen Page, Michael Shannon, Josh Charles, Luke Grimes, Steve Carell.
Director: Peter Sollett.
Screenwriter: Ron Nyswaner.
A Summit Entertainment release. Running time: 103 minutes. Language, sexuality, adult themes. In Miami-Dade: South Beach; in Broward: Gateway.