★★ Freeheld | A dying female police officer struggles to get her benefits passed on to her female domestic partner in the new film ‘Freeheld.’
Starring Oscar Winner Julianne Moore (last year’s ‘Still Alice’), Moore plays the real-life Laurel Hester, an Ocean County New Jersey police detective who is diagnosed with terminal cancer at the age of 48. But before she was diagnosed with cancer, she meets Stacie Leigh Andree (Ellen Page – ‘Juno’ and ‘Inception‘), on a Lesbian volleyball team. Andree is 19 years younger than Hester, but they’re both smitten with each other, enough so that they decide to move in together, in a house that’s purchased by Hester.
But Hester is not out at work, and she continues to tell her police partner Dane Wells (Michael Shannon) that Andree is her roommate. It takes a bit of time, and courage, for Hester to confirm to Wells what he’s always suspected – that Hester is a Lesbian.
It’s not long after that when Hester is diagnosed with rapidly spreading lung cancer. Hester is given a bad prognosis, especially after the cancer spreads to her brain, so she knows that she’s going to die. Her wish is to leave her benefits to Andree, but she’s told that this is not allowed for same-sex domestic partners. She appeals to the county legislators (a/k/a freeholders) for them to allow her pension to be passed to Andree, but the all-male panel of five refuse to do so.
Although New Jersey counties have the option to extend pension benefits to domestic partners, the Ocean County Freeholders do not do this for her. Enter gay lawyer and activist Steven Goldstein (Steve Carell – trying to ante up an Oscar nomination in a very campy role), the chair of Garden State Equality – a powerful gay activist lobbying group – who, along with many other activists, protests to the freeholders to allow Hester’s benefits to pass to Andree. It’s a fight that they’re not going to give up, but Hester’s clock is running out.
‘Freeheld,’ named as such because of the freeholders, is based on the 2007 documentary of the same name.
It’s a documentary that told the same story as the current movie, but features Andree and the rest of the people that knew and worked with Hester, and includes the local media discussing the case. Why make a movie of an excellent documentary that already exists?
The documentary was made by Cynthia Wade, who is listed as a producer on this film – and directed by relatively unknown Peter Sollett and written by Ron Nyswaner. Why put such an important movie into these two film novices hands? ‘Freeheld’ doesn’t quite work as a movie. While the acting by the female leads and Shannon are very good, it’s Carrell who’s way over the top as the activist gay lawyer. He’s a gay cartoon character come to life! Also, we’ve already recently seen Moore dying in her last film – ‘Still Alice’ – so it’s puzzling why she would follow up that with this movie where she’s dying again. It appears that the filmmakers were gunning for Oscar nominations by making this film with it’s timely subject matter, but at best it’s a mediocre film that’s marred down by a poor cookie cutter script and direction that’s not very realistic with scenes that appear to be staged. It’s an important story to tell but best to rent the 2007 documentary instead.