Freeheld is Poignant, Powerful, but a Touch Parched
Directed by: Peter Sollett
Screenplay by: Ron Nyswaner
Based on Freeheld by Cynthia Wade
Starring: Julianne Moore, Ellen Page, Michael Shannon, Steve Carell
Running time 103 minutes
Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements, language and sexuality
Freeheld is the story of Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore), a decorated and celebrated detective for the Ocean County, New Jersey Police Department, and her fight for equality. Determined to make lieutenant Laurel has to keep her sexual orientation a secret from everyone, including her partner Dane Wells (Michael Shannon). Her life takes two dramatic turns; first, she met and fell in love with auto mechanic Stacie Andree (Ellen Page). Hester and Andree bought a house together, and went though the laborious process to become Domestic Partners in the state of New Jersey. Second, in 2005 Hester was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in 2005. Not wanting her spouse to lose the house they owned, Hester petitioned the county to extend survivors benefits to her Domestic Partner Stacie Andree, a benefit for state employees, but for county employees it requires the local government grant the request. The Ocean Country Freeholders repeatedly denied her request leading to a long fight for equality, and justice, championed by her partner Dane Wells, and gay rights attorney Steven Goldstein (Steve Carell).
This film is both heartwarming and heartbreaking, with a story that is deceptively complex, and characters that are equally nuanced. Little is as agonizingly frustrating to watch on screen as blatant injustice, that I have to make a conscious choice to not clench my jaw and grind my teeth. This film nearly drove me to shouting at the screen, and bought a theatre to tears.
On the surface, I would not have pegged this story to make a compelling feature length film. There are multiple reasons this film worked, the cast, the script, and the director. Screenwriter Ron Nyswaner kept the dialogue genuine and honest with few perfect grand monologues. This drove the few grand speeches to a higher level, which was a little emotionally manipulative, but with an emotionally charged subject that is forgivable. However, a good script is only useful if the film has the talent to deliver it. In this case, Page, Moore, Shannon, and Carell played this screenplay as a virtuoso would play a piano. Moore is harsh and unrelenting in her portrayal of Laurel Hester, her warmth showing through as a steely resolve that displayed a depth of emotion can only admire. Page was adorably awkward as Stacie Andree, and as strongly willed as Moore. Together they made one of the more memorably awkward onscreen couples in what could easily be one of the more profound modern love stories of the decade.
Finally, Peter Sollett’s direction kept the story moving forward, even if it did falter at times and the few comedic breaks in the heavy story were sometimes too few and far between. That may have just been my perception as I agonized over what these women were going through, and I desperately needed something to offset that anguish. Overall, the film was solid, and heavy. A harsh pill to swallow, but one I was very glad to take.