Friday, October 9, 2015

Freeheld: Sentiment over substance

Freeheld (2015) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity, mild profanity and discreet sensuality

By Derrick Bang

It seems such a reasonable request.

You work a job for 23 years, building up a respectable pension, and then — tragically — a health crisis strikes. Death now will come much sooner, as opposed to the “later” we all hope for. One therefore assumes that you’d be allowed to assign your pension funds to any loved one of choice: spouse, parent, child. Why should it matter?

Having made the brave decision to "out" herself and publicly acknowledge her relationship,
Laurel (Jullianne Moore, left) happily completes and registers the paperwork so that she
and Stacie (Ellen Page) can become official "domestic partners."
It mattered in New Jersey in 2005 — one short decade ago — when the requested recipient was a “domestic partner.”

Freeheld, director Peter Sollett’s heartfelt adaptation of those events, is anchored by compelling and deeply nuanced performances from Julianne Moore and Ellen Page. Ron Nyswaner’s script deftly compresses the key events, while focusing on the touching interpersonal dynamic between the two principal characters.

The result is something in the way of social commentary and advocacy cinema: a narrative model with which Nyswaner is quite familiar, having been Oscar-nominated for his script to 1993’s AIDS drama, Philadelphia.

Moore, whose Hollywood career has been impressively varied, stars as Laurel Hester, a well-respected veteran of New Jersey’s Ocean County police force. She takes her job seriously, and — thanks to Moore’s carefully shaded performance — we detect a slight chip on Laurel’s shoulder, likely the hardened perseverance of a woman who has had to work twice as hard as her male colleagues, probably for half as much recognition.

It’s also clear that her private life is very private, her sexual preference having been concealed even from longtime partner Dane Wells (Michael Shannon). But Laurel isn’t a hermit. Most recently, while participating in a volleyball league across town, she meets the much younger Stacie Andree (Page), who confidently acts on what she perceives as a possible shared attraction.

Stacie isn’t wrong; the spark is genuine, even if Laurel takes awhile to lower a career’s worth of defenses. The embryonic relationship is sweet, although not without setbacks; Laurel finds it difficult to be as openly expressive as her new partner. That’d be the age difference, at least in part; Stacie belongs to a generation that doesn’t feel quite the same need to hide.

Which is interesting, mostly because of the intriguing duality that Page brings to Stacie. She’s bold and yet shy; sure of herself but almost pathologically afraid to speak in public. She rarely raises her eyes when talking, her voice muted almost below audibility. Despite an outward display of hardy self-assurance, Stacie also seems oddly vulnerable: a timid waif who, occasional righteous indignation notwithstanding, seems ill-equipped to weather the hostility that she must have encountered many times, by this point in her life.

It’s also fascinating to see how Page makes Stacie seem even smaller than the actress’ already diminutive 5-foot-1 stature.

But in Laurel’s presence, Stacie blossoms like a flower welcoming the blazing sun; it’s wonderful to see Page’s bashful little face turn incandescent. Laurel, in turn, becomes more comfortable in her own skin, particularly as the strength of the bond grants her the security to do so.

They register as domestic partners; they buy a house; they adopt a dog ... all the comfortable suburban things that “normal” people do.

Then, the crisis: Laurel is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, her remaining life likely to be measured in months, rather than years. She petitions the Board of Chosen Freeholders — the local legislature in each of New Jersey’s 21 counties — to be allowed to pass her pension on to Stacie. The five-man panel refuses.

And thus begins Laurel’s seemingly futile quest for justice.

It’s an important story, and one which already has been detailed in Cynthia Wade’s deeply moving 2007 documentary of the same title (which won an Academy Award for Best Short Documentary, after having earned a Special Jury Prize at Sundance). Sollett, Nyswaner and their cast honor that legacy with a dramatized account that covers the essential emotional beats without becoming exploitative.

Thus, while we’ve no doubt of Laurel’s descent into cancer-riddled emaciation — just as we never question the depth of the loving relationship she shares with Stacie — Sollett never lingers, and Nyswaner’s scripted dialog never sounds strident or artificially melodramatic.

I’m particularly impressed by Shannon’s work as Laurel’s partner. Wells describes himself as a conservative Republican who never paid much attention to social issues or gay rights; no surprise, then, that he initially balks upon learning of his longtime colleague’s sexual preference. But he’s also a good man who respects and loves Laurel in his own way, and Shannon lets us observe how this man’s indignation — over the Freeholders’ decision — eventually extinguishes all uncertainty.

He soon comes to share Laurel’s goal, despite the hazing this provokes from fellow cops.


Moore, Page and Shannon fully inhabit characters that have been persuasively sketched by Nyswaner’s script. The same cannot be said of Steve Carell, who, in his performance as LGBT activist Steven Goldstein — loudly Jewish, loudly gay — makes the man an overblown clown. It also yanks us wholly out of the drama, particularly during his introductory scene.

It’s a terrible casting choice, because Carell is simply too much himself. Goldstein may well have been an impassioned circus barker during his organization’s increasingly raucous appearances before the Board of Freeholders, but reality and dramatic consistency are two entirely different things. In the context of this film, Carell severely damages the story being told.

Dennis Boutsikaris exudes shallow, insincere sympathy (“We are anguished”) as Pat Gerry, chair of the Freeholders: a man unwilling to make unnecessary waves. Tom McGowan’s Bill Johnson is the token religious conservative among the Freeholders, arguing that to grant Laurel’s request would violate the sanctity of marriage.

Josh Charles, finally, gives a thoughtful performance as Bryan Kelder, the lone Freeholder with a conscience. Even so, political sensitivity blunts his willingness to challenge the other board members ... to a point. Mina Sundwall has a nice little part as Maya Kelder, the disappointed teenage daughter who argues her father into better behavior.

The two remaining board members remain largely faceless and inconsequential. It’s also important to understand that whereas Laurel, Stacie, Wells and Goldstein are real-world individuals, the names of all five Freeholders have been changed, no doubt to avoid lawsuits ... because — to put it bluntly — their collective behavior is rather shameful.

Moore’s phenomenal lead performance notwithstanding — she’s so exquisitely precise here, as she was in last year’s Still Alice — there’s a predictable and superficial quality to Sollett’s handling of this film: a “movie of the week” tone that isn’t helped by Carell’s overblown performance. This dramatized version of Laurel Hester’s grim crusade deserves our attention for historical purposes, and for Moore’s excellent work ... but Wade’s earlier documentary remains a better document of these events.

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