It may be a sign of the sweeping changes that have occurred in the gay-rights arena that “Freeheld” — a fact-based drama about two New Jersey women who fought for due recognition of their domestic partnership in the mid-2000s — at times plays like a period piece, populated by cardboard bigots, flamboyant gay crusaders and other hoary relics of a less enlightened past. That may be cause for celebration, but it’s hardly a compliment. Despite a credible and moving love story driven by strong performances from Julianne Moore and Ellen Page, director Peter Sollett’s film is an oppressively worthy and self-satisfied inspirational vehicle that views its story primarily as a series of teachable moments, all but congratulating viewers for their moral and ideological superiority to roughly half the people onscreen. The Supreme Court’s recent landmark ruling in favor of marriage equality will lend the Oct. 2 Summit Entertainment some topical traction, and the film’s undeniably stirring moments will likely overwhelm lukewarm critical response where word of mouth is concerned.
Laurel Hester had spent 23 years as a detective with the Ocean County Police Department when she was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer, at which point she formally requested that her pension benefits be extended to her domestic partner, Stacie Andree. A panel of five Republican county legislators, or freeholders, rejected her bid, but the couple fought back, their case made national headlines, and eventually the freeholders reversed their decision in January 2006 and set a crucial precedent in the same-sex marriage debate — all less than a month before Hester’s death at the age of 49. (The events were covered in Cynthia Wade’s Oscar-winning 2007 short documentary of the same title.) Coming off her own Oscar-winning turn as an Alzheimer’s patient in “Still Alice,” Moore gets to waste away even more vividly onscreen as Laurel; the character’s final moments, which she performs with her head completely shaved, her face hidden by a hospital mask and her voice an unintelligible rasp, are genuinely stark and unsettling to behold.
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All the more so, perhaps, because the screenplay by Ron Nyswaner (who ventured into similar territory with 1993’s “Philadelphia”) has already introduced us to an earlier, much healthier version of Laurel circa 2002 — a smart, tenacious and unswervingly loyal detective who’s often risked life and limb to get murderers and drug dealers off the streets of Jersey. Tough as she is, though, Laurel has never revealed her sexual orientation to her longtime partner, Dane Wells (Michael Shannon), or indeed to any of the other officers on the force; she’s well aware how hard it already will be for her as a woman, let alone as an out lesbian, to realize her goal of making lieutenant. The need to maintain secrecy and exercise strict control over her personal life makes for some initially awkward dates with Stacie (Page), the cute and free-spirited 27-year old (19 years Laurel’s junior) whom she meets at a women’s volleyball game.
The attraction between Laurel and Stacie is immediate and sustained, and roughly a year later, the two have a dog, a new house and a registered domestic partnership. And so when Laurel receives her fateful diagnosis, she immediately files a request that, in the likely event of her imminent death, her pension will go to Stacie — not just as a gift to the woman she loves, but also because Stacie doesn’t earn enough as an auto mechanic (as we learn in one amusing sequence, she’s the fastest tire rotater in New Jersey) to cover their mortgage once Laurel is gone. But the freeholders, who pride themselves on their traditionalism and the irrefutable rightness of their decisions, refuse to grant Laurel’s request, unaware that their actions are about to make them a crucial focal point amid the growing tide of support for LGBT rights nationwide.
As she insists repeatedly throughout, Laurel simply wants the same courtesy that would be accorded a heterosexual colleague; she has no stake in the gay-marriage debate (“Equality, not marriage” is her mantra), and she certainly doesn’t consider herself an activist. But an activist is exactly what she is, says Steven Goldstein (Steve Carell), the founder of a group called Garden State Equality, who takes an interest in her case and knows exactly how to amplify it in the media — which he does by staging protests at freeholder meetings and turning the entire affair into a noisy piece of political theater. Proving himself to be an even more loyal and unexpected champion is Dane, who, though startled and initially hurt to learn that Laurel will never return his romantic interest, swiftly comes around to her side once the battle gets under way.
For its first hour or so, “Freeheld” engages well enough as a nicely observed and played romantic drama, marred only by a somewhat overly correct, on-the-nose approach that gets promptly exploded whenever Carell’s Goldstein steps into frame. A self-described “middle-class Jewish homosexual from New York,” he calls everyone “honey,” projects tons of diva-like attitude and carries on a one-way flirtation with Shannon’s very straight, very uncomfortable Dane. It’s a broad, over-the-top and, in the end, hopelessly misjudged performance that Carell unfortunately throws himself into completely.
Perhaps it was assumed there would be room for some ghastly comic relief in a movie that otherwise treats its LGBT characters with somber respect, including Staci, Laurel and another cop (Luke Grimes) keeping his sexuality under wraps. But Goldstein isn’t the only character here whose representation tilts toward stereotype. With the exception of Bryan Kelder (a sympathetic Josh Charles), the one principled dissenter on the board, the freeholders are dismissed as a fusty and clueless bunch; beyond a few cheap shots at their religious convictions, no effort is made to understand the precise nature of their opposition. But then, according to the simplistic formulations of “Freeheld,” opposition is something that routinely crumbles on cue: Hardly the least of the miracles on display here is the process by which Laurel’s fellow officers suddenly transform from a squad of sniggering homophobes into a dedicated 11th-hour support group. It’s all the more reason to appreciate the integrity of Shannon’s potent performance as a detective whose unswerving loyalty turns him into an improbable but highly effective LGBT ally.
Because Hester had to fight from her deathbed, she sometimes feels like a secondary figure in her own story, creating a partial dramatic void that may explain why “Freeheld” seems to be toggling among three different and largely incongruous modes, from tacky culture-clash comedy to noisy community-room drama (shades of Nyswaner’s “Philadelphia” script) to grim terminal-illness weepie. It’s the latter register in which the movie feels most intimate and resonant, which can be chalked up entirely to its skillfully underplayed leads. Laurel and Stacie both hope to avoid the public spotlight and, quite unlike the film itself, never become strident in their demands, and the actresses embody them with the understanding that their quiet dignity confers more authority than a raised voice ever could.
Page, whose own coming-out story has served as one of the film’s primary talking/selling points, gives a sweetly assured, firmly grounded turn as the much younger but in some ways wiser and more experienced of the two lovers. Moore movingly presents a woman of great but not inhuman courage, someone whose very feminine beauty (“She’s so not like a lesbian,” a colleague remarks) has served to deflect any suspicions of what she’s had to struggle with. The actresses’ moving final scenes together provide a quietly chastening reminder that even a groundbreaking legal victory pales in comparison with a loved one’s untimely loss.
Moving firmly into grown-up prestige-drama territory following two appealingly youth-centric pictures (2008’s “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” and 2005’s terrific “Raising Victor Vargas”), Sollett oversees an array of outstanding technical contributions including Maryse Alberti’s well-framed compositions; Jane Musky’s realistically lived-in sets (especially for Laurel and Stacie’s house); and a gentle, unobtrusive score by Hans Zimmer and Johnny Marr. Still, if “Freeheld” paints a pretty picture, it’s also an insufficiently ambiguous and faintly condescending one, projecting the sort of complacency that too often accompanies movies peering back at recent history from a more evolved perspective. It takes a hard-won milestone and makes it feel, dramatically speaking, like a foregone conclusion.