Screenwriter Ron Nyswaner doesn’t stray far from his Philadelphia playbook with Freeheld, which chronicles another struggle for equality set against the ticking clock of a dying protagonist. This time it’s the true story of a New Jersey detective with stage four lung cancer, fighting to leave her pension to her female domestic partner. Affecting work from Julianne Moore and Ellen Page in those lead roles provides some emotional juice, but the most compelling performance comes from Michael Shannon in a key supporting part. Elsewhere, this is a film that adheres to expectations every step of the way.
The movie does exactly what it sets out to do, which will leave many audiences satisfied. It’s an ennobling tearjerker that pats us all on the back for how far we’ve come by relating one of the countless real-life stepping-stone victories against LGBT discrimination that ultimately led to marriage equality. But it seems legitimate to expect something less pedestrian from director Peter Sollett, who brought so much heart and intimate character observation to Raising Victor Vargas, and put his own sweet spin on the teen movie in the flawed but pleasurable Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist.
Perhaps one reason Freeheld underwhelms even as it more or less delivers is the casting of Moore. After winning an Oscar for portraying a brilliant academic mind under cruel siege in Still Alice, here she plays a strong woman steeled against any display of vulnerability in a very male professional world, but rendered helpless in the face of physical illness. It’s a touching performance, right down to the haunted eyes, the gaunt, ashen face and the post-chemo hair loss. But the harrowing trajectory feels like a variation replay of something we’ve seen from her only recently in a superior version.
Based on Cynthia Wade‘s Oscar-winning documentary short of the same name, Nyswaner’s screenplay can be broken down into three overlapping acts — the romantic idyll, the health crisis and the fight for justice. That latter section unfolds this time not in a courtroom, but in the cinematically moribund forum of New Jersey’s county legislature, whose members are known in the state as freeholders.
Moore plays Laurel Hester, a respected 23-year veteran of the force, first seen in 2002 with a faintly ridiculous blonde Farrah flip. But bad wig aside, she’s as tough as any of the guys in her unit, including her partner Dane Wells (Shannon), who has her back and regards himself as her friend. However, she’s so guarded against being exposed as a lesbian that she crosses the state line into Pennsylvania to join a women’s volleyball team in the hope of finding a girlfriend. She gets lucky first time out with Stacie Andree (Page), a cute auto mechanic with no qualms about their considerable age difference.
A year later, Laurel and Stacie buy the house, get the dog and hang the wind chimes. The old joke about what a lesbian brings on a second date (a U-Haul truck) applies here to their under-developed relationship. Moore and Page are both appealing screen presences, but the movie fails to get us invested in them either as individuals or as a couple. Stacie, in particular, is thinly drawn. In fact, when Dane drops by unannounced with a housewarming gift, and Laurel’s secret is suddenly out, his wounded feelings and her awkward response make that partnership seem the more interesting one.
When Laurel is diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer, Stacie goes into denial mode, insisting they can beat it together. But the detective has the pragmatism of someone accustomed to studying facts. Realizing that without her financial help, Stacie will be unable to keep their house after she’s gone, she attempts to sign over her pension benefits. But the freeholders block it, despite Josh Charles as the lone voice of reason and compassion on the board.
Naturally, there are moving moments as Laurel channels her dwindling energy into the fight for equality, while Stacie tries to remain strong, and despite the resistance of the other cops, Dane persists in rallying their support. But truth be told, the developments follow a predictable path and the battleground of municipal politics is low on sparks. In mechanical fashion, the drama pushes all the required buttons of indignation, anger, triumph and sorrow, with Moore and Page each getting a speech to demonstrate who they are and why their love deserves respect and fundamental rights. But all the conviction the actors can muster can’t make this script feel less pat.
The one misstep in the cast is Steve Carell‘s silly, showboating turn as a flamboyant Garden State LGBT activist who describes himself as “a big loud gay Jew.” While he galvanizes a few protesters and has a couple of droll interactions with Shannon’s Dane, the character is an irritant; he’s stereotypical gay comic relief and belongs in a different movie. Or an SNL sketch.
Sollett gives the drama a look of unfussy naturalism that keeps the focus squarely on the performers. And for a movie that counts on heartstrings being tugged, he makes refreshingly restrained use of Hans Zimmer‘s score, along with some nice Jersey-flavored guitar by Johnny Marr. But this is a small, decorous movie laboring under the misapprehension that it’s a bold, important one.
Cast: Julianne Moore, Ellen Page, Michael Shannon, Josh Charles, Luke Grimes, Skipp Sudduth, Steve Carell
Production companies: Endgame Entertainment, Masproduction, Head Gear Films, Vie Entertainment
Director: Peter Sollett
Screenwriter: Ron Nyswaner, based on the documentary short by Cynthia Wade
Producers: Michael Shamberg, Stacy Sher, Cynthia Wade, Jack Selby, Duncan Montgomery, James D. Stern, Julie Goldstein, Phil Hunt, Compton Ross, Kelly Bush Novak, Ellen Page
Executive producers: Robert Salerno, Ameet Shukia, Richard Fischoff, Taylor Latham, Adam del Deo, Tiller Russell, Scott G. Stone, Stephen Kelliher, Gregory R. Schnez, Elliot Ross, Fenella Ross
Director of photography: Maryse Alberti
Production designer: Jane Musky
Costume designer: Stacey Battat
Music: Hans Zimmer, Johnny Marr
Editor: Andrew Mondshein
Casting: Avy Kaufman
Sales: Bankside Films
PG-13 rating, 103 minutes.