If “Freeheld” had been made around 20 years ago, it would have looked a bit better and bolder as a movie willing to tell a story about sexual minority people and their equal rights. While its story is based one of the most poignant real-life love stories I have ever heard about, the movie does not have much to tell besides what I know, and, to my disappointment, it falters and slouches as failing to bring human dimensions to its story and characters.
When Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore) and Stacie Andree (Ellen Page) happened to encounter each other for the first time in 2002, it was love at first sight for both of them. Shortly after a volleyball game in which they participate with other ladies, Laurel approaches to Stacie, and something clicks between them as they talk with each other for a while. They soon have their private evening date at a local bar for gays and lesbians, and, despite many differences between them including age and background, they eventually move together to their new home.
But Laurel keeps hiding this serious romantic relationship from her colleagues in the police department of Ocean County, New Jersey. As a female detective, she knows well that she has to stay in line without causing any trouble to jeopardize her career, and she even does not tell about her sexuality to her partner Dane Wells (Michael Shannon), a taciturn guy she can always depend on whenever they are doing their duty outside.
In case of Stacie, she has no problem in getting a new job around their home. While the movie does not delve into whether she is open about her homosexuality at her new workplace, all her tough guy boss cares about is how good she is as an experienced car mechanic, and she surely impresses him when she swiftly exchanges a wheel within a few minutes.
Anyway, Stacie understands Laurel’s situation, and they have been happy together for several years as life partners, but then there comes a bad news for them. When her body does not feel that right on one day, Laurel goes to the hospital, and the medical examination result turns out to be worse than she thought. She has a cancer, and it has already progressed to the terminal stage. Even under the best circumstance, she does not have much time to live, and that little remaining time will definitely be hard for her as well as Stacie.
While they are not technically a married couple and same-sex marriage has not been legalized yet in their state, Laurel wants Stacie to receive her pension after her death because she believes Stacie deserves that right. They are still paying off their mortgage as well as Laurel’s medical treatment bills, and Stacie will really need Laurel’s pension if she continues to live in their house as Laurel wishes.
Laurel writes a petition letter to the county legislators who are commonly called ‘freeholders’, but they immediately reject her requests, and that is the beginning of Laurel and Stacie’s public protest, which was the subject of Oscar-winning short documentary film “Freeheld” (2007). I watched that short documentary film in late 2008 when it was shown on TV as a part of the EBS International Documentary Festival, and I remember well how much I felt angry about those small-minded conservative legislators who disregarded a dying woman’s wish as hiding behind their petty excuses. To be frank with you, their impertinent hypocritical attitude reminds me of those despicable US senators who said how sorry and condolent they were about the Orlando shooting incident and then blocked a gun control bill in the very next week.
One of several touching things in that short documentary film was how others around Laurel and Stacie stood by them, and that is also depicted in the movie. While he is initially not so pleased to learn that Laurel has been hiding her personal relationship from him for years, Dane becomes her No.1 defender at the police department, and he also encourages her to make a direct petition right in front of the freeholders during the public meeting. Her public petition accordingly draws lots of media attention, and Laurel and Stacie are fortunately supported not only by activists including Steven Goldstein (Steve Carell) but also their neighbors.
This indeed has considerable potentials for genuine human drama, but Ron Nyswaner’s screenplay is stuffed with many unnecessary things including a drug crime case investigated by Laurel and Dane, and it is also disappointing to see its talented performers being stuck with bland characterization. Julianne Moore and Ellen Page try their best even when the movie trudges along its lackluster narrative, but I am only reminded of how they were a lot better in other films. As watching her character’s health being deteriorated in the movie, I could not help but think about how wonderful Moore was as the terminally ill heroine of “Still Alice” (2014), which garnered an Oscar for her in last year. Since her charming Oscar-nominated turn in “Juno” (2007), Page has always been an interesting actress to watch, but she does not have much to do here just like her co-star. While Michael Shannon draws our attention with his mere presence as usual, Steve Carell is awfully wasted in his thankless role, and I must say that I was surprised to learn that his seemingly caricature character has a real-life counterpart.
Under the director Peter Sollett’s flat direction devoid of any human personality or intimacy, “Freeheld” feels like a mediocre TV movie, and this deficiency looks all the more glaring compared to “Carol” (2015) and other recent better drama films about sexual minority characters. In fact, the 2007 short documentary film is packed with far more power and authenticity, and I am willing to watch it again now – and I think you should watch it instead of this disappointing dramatized version if you can.