“Freeheld” tells an inspiring true story in a conventional, predictable way. The power of the narrative almost carries the movie from “seen this before” to “something special” but slips in a pool of tears and falls flat.
Laurel Hester was a police officer in Ocean County, N.J., dedicated and hardworking and tightly wound. She kept her personal life to herself; colleagues didn’t know she was gay and in a loving relationship with a younger woman, Stacie Andree.
When Hester was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer, she wanted to pass her pension benefits to Andree, her registered domestic partner, a move that would have been legal if Hester were a man. The five Republican members of the Ocean County governing body, the Board of Freeholders, denied Hester’s request to transfer her pension benefits at a 2005 meeting where one freeholder said that to do so would violate “the sanctity of marriage.” Hester made an emotional appeal, and the case drew national attention.
If that sounds like the basis for an interesting movie, it already was. “Freeheld,” a 2007 documentary by Cynthia Wade, followed Hester through her final days and captured her courage and the love between her and Andree as attention they didn’t seek threatened to overwhelm them. “Freeheld” won numerous awards at film festivals and an Academy Award for best documentary short subject.
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“Freeheld” is now a narrative feature, and like “The Walk,” another new movie that follows an Oscar-winning documentary on the same material, it’s best not to compare the factual to the fact-based. A documentary is different than a feature — apples and oranges, or in this case, an orange that has the juice squeezed out of it.
Hester is portrayed by Julianne Moore with an old-school shag and a brusque manner so off-putting it’s a wonder Andree (Ellen Page) was able to break through it. But break through she did, and the early scenes where these two lonely, mismatched spirits find each other are touching and believable. (Except for the one where Hester pulls a gun on some would-be gay bashers and Andree takes it completely in stride. Where’d that come from? You’re a cop? Oh.)
Hester has a supportive co-worker, her partner Dane Wells, played by Michael Shannon with great depth and sensitivity. It’s this relationship — complicated, stop-and-start — that contrasts with the one between Hester and Andree and occasionally lifts the movie above a straight, flat line. The other relief is from Steve Carell, a flamboyant gay activist who takes up Hester’s case and uses it to promote the bigger issue, marriage equality. Carell’s performance is over-the-top, but he brings a lightness and energy that are otherwise absent.
Screenwriter Ron Nyswaner (“Philadelphia”) goes for emotion over subtlety at every turn. Once Hester is sick, there’s no room for anything but a broad gesture and a predictable arc. The good people are so good. The bad people are just bad. Director Peter Sollett marches everything along with none of the visual flair or wit he brought to “Raising Victor Vargas” and “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.”
It’s as if everyone got caught up in making an important movie and forgot to make a good one. “Freeheld” isn’t bad — with that kind of source material and topline acting talent it almost couldn’t be — but it could have been much more than it is.
3 ½ stars out of 5
Cast: Julianne Moore, Ellen Page, Steve Carell, Michael Shannon, Josh Charles, Luke Grimes.
Director: Peter Sollett.
Running time: 1:43.
Rated: PG-13, for some thematic elements, language and sexuality.