Cancer, Civil partnerships, Drama, Ellen Page, Equality, Freeholders, Julianne Moore, Laurel Hester, Michael Shannon, New Jersey, Ocean County, Pension rights, Peter Sollett, Police, Review, True story
D: Peter Sollett / 103m
Cast: Julianne Moore, Ellen Page, Michael Shannon, Josh Charles, Steve Carell, Dennis Boutsikaris, William Sadler, Tom McGowan, Kevin O’Rourke, Luke Grimes, Gabriel Luna, Anthony DeSando, Skipp Sudduth, Mary Birdsong, Kelly Deadmon
When Forrest Gump memorably announced that “life [is] like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get”, he probably wasn’t referring to Freeheld, a cliché-ridden recounting of the struggle endured by New Jersey police detective Laurel Hester (Moore) as she tried to get her pension benefits assigned to her same-sex partner, Stacie Andree (Page). Hester had an aggressive form of lung cancer that spread to her brain, and she wanted her pension paid to Stacie so that she would be able to remain in their home.
But a combination of political and gender prejudices decreed that Stacie would not be entitled to those benefits, even though the Ocean County board of freeholders assigned to make that decision had been recently empowered to do so by the state legislature. Instead they rejected Laurel’s claim and, if you believe this version of events, remained stubborn in their rejection of her claim for some time afterward, and in the face of mounting protests and media criticism.
Now, if you’ve read this far – or have already seen the movie – it won’t be much of a stretch to realise that Laurel got her wish and Stacie got her benefits. But it’s the way in which this story is told that is likely to anger viewers, more than the intransigence of the board. With its bland, TV-movie-of-the-week visual style, and numbingly rote storytelling, Freeheld has all the appeal of televised jury service (and where the case is a minor one). It ticks all the boxes as it wends its weary way to its foregone conclusion: Hester’s concealment of her lesbianism from her colleagues and police partner Dane Wells (Shannon); the way in which this concealment affects her relationship with Stacie; Wells’ disappointment when he finds out (that Laurel didn’t tell him ages ago); the discovery of a lump that “isn’t that serious”; the male police detective (played by Grimes) who’s also gay and can’t/won’t show his support; Stacie’s determination to believe that Laurel will beat her cancer; one of the board (Charles) acting as its moral conscience; and the discovery of information about the board that will help in getting them to overturn their decision.
Freeheld is a movie that lacks joy and passion, and thanks to uninspired direction from Sollett, it’s even hard to be outraged by the board’s spurious reasons for their decision. Even Moore isn’t as engaged in her character as you’d expect her to be (perhaps she realised early on there wasn’t a lot of depth there), and Page plays Stacie as either grouchy or permanently upset with no room in between. Shannon looks uncomfortable throughout, Charles looks like he’s trying to solve a difficult maths problem, Grimes wears a guilty-through-shame expression that should be a giveaway to his colleagues but isn’t, and there’s an irritating, over-the-top performance by Carell as a gay rights activist that both enlivens the movie and highlights how drab it is elsewhere.
Rating: 4/10 – despite the movie’s attempts to retell an important milestone in the struggle for equal rights, Freeheld is a lazy attempt to do so, and fails to convince in almost every department; for a better overview of Laurel Hester’s story, track down Freeheld (2007), an Oscar-winning documentary short that doesn’t deal in awkward sentimentality or by-the-numbers moralising.