TORONTO – Nothing is more disheartening than writing a negative review about a movie with admirable intentions. “Freeheld,” which debuted tonight at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival, is based on the true story of Laurel Hester, an Ocean County, New Jersey police officer who fought to have her pension benefits assigned to her domestic partner Stacie in 2005. Unfortunately, an impressive cast and significant real-life events can”t trump the fact it”s a badly made movie.
When we first meet Laurel (Julianne Moore) she”s in the middle of a stake out with her partner Dane Wells (Michael Shannon). Along with a few other officers they are trying to nail a drug dealer working the boardwalk. When things go wrong, Laurel shows up to save the day which is meant to telegraph the fact that she”s a damn good cop. It”s elementary script writing directed like an episode of 1980″s TV series “Cagney and Lacey” and a hint of just how broadly the movie will play out.
Laurel works in a conservative part of the state and she's decided to stay in the closet at work to advance in her career. Single for quite a long time, she soon meets Stacie Andree (Ellen Page) while playing volleyball in a gay sports league (an hour away from her hometown so no one will find out). There is an immediate spark between the two of them and Laurel agrees to meet Stacie at a gay country music bar for a first, real date. It's during this night on the town that Stacie realizes just how spooked Laurel is about being outed. These scenes are the first warning that Page and Moore do everything they can (and often struggling) to make screenwriter Ron Nyswaner”s dialogue sound like something real people would say.
Time passes and Laurel and Stacie fall madly in love. Just a few years after buying a home together, however, Laurel is diagnosed with lung cancer. It gets progressively worse and she begins to worry about whether Stacie, who as an auto mechanic takes home significantly less, will be able to afford the mortgage after she passes away. While the couple were registered domestic partners, at the time New Jersey state law gave each county the right to approve the transfer of benefits. Laurel appeals to the county board (called freeholders in Ocean County), but they refuse to grant her request. Before you know it gay rights advocate Steve Goldstein (Steve Carell) and his Garden State Equality organization turns the next public freeholders meeting into a loud political protest.
The resulting media attention forces an ending that is admittedly moving, but the emotions seemingly come from the “it”s almost like a movie” sequence of historical events. Of course, it feels like a movie in real life because Nyswaner ‘s screenplay cheats the timing of the proceedings so they appear even more dramatic than how they actually played out (and they were pretty intense in real life already). Positive intentions aside, if anyone is to take creative blame for the pictures by the numbers storyline its him.
Moore is very good portraying Laurel”s physical deterioration and provides the film its most poignant moment during a key county board meeting. Page gives a passionate performance of a woman who simply doesn”t want to believe her partner won”t survive. And, thankfully, the duo has wonderful chemistry on screen which at least makes most of their scenes watchable.
Goldstein may be an over-the-top queen in real life, but Carell needed to seriously rein it in more to avoid making him a cliché on the big screen (he did not). That”s not to say Carell isn”t trying to give his character more depth it just doesn”t work in this context. Michael Shannon seems lost at times, but that”s likely because he simply isn”t given much to work with. As you immediately suspect Dan is a good guy who might be shocked when he discovers his longtime partner is gay, but it”s obvious he”s going to fight to make her dying wish happen.
What”s so shocking about all of this is there are just as many impressive names behind the scenes as in front of it. You”d never imagine in a million years “Freeheld” was directed by the same man who guided “Raising Victor Vargas” and “Nick and Norah”s Infinite Playlist.” It doesn”t have a hint of those film”s style or energy and, boy, could it have used it. Cinematographer Maryse Alberti shot “The Wrestler” and “Velvet Goldmine,” but he”s filmed talking head documentaries that looked better than this. And the score? Not Hans Zimmer's most memorable work. It all looks and feels like a TV movie and it doesn't even have the production value of an HBO one at that.
Luckily, a more accurate and compelling depiction of Laurel and Stacie”s battle can be found in the Oscar-winning documentary short from which this movie was based on. The doc was also titled “Freeheld” and was just one of thousands of items that contributed to the cultural shift that has seen gay marriage become legal in the United States. Now, that”s a legacy Laurel and Stacie can be proud of.
“Freeheld” opens Oct. 2.