Cinema and art have the power to make a difference, which is why Freeheld is an important film that needs to be watched and pondered, as it highlights the sociopolitical contradictions within an allegedly progressive country like the United States of America. Yet despite that, from an artistic standpoint the film could’ve benefited from more development, especially at the script stage, and has the unmistakeable feel of a diligent TV movie with an A-list cast.
Based on Cynthia Wade’s 2007 Oscar-winning documentary short film of the same name, this narrative feature chronicles the true story of New Jersey cop Laurel Hester and her battle for justice against the New Jersey Board of Chosen Freeholders in Ocean County. In the wake of being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, Laurel was denied her right to pass her earned pension to her domestic partner Stacie Andree after her death so that she could afford to keep their mortgaged home.
Screenwriter Ron Nyswaner is not new to stories about social injustice that involve gay rights, as he penned and earned an Oscar nomination for Jonathan Demme’s iconic and heartbreaking Philadelphia, but whilst the Tom Hanks starrer was a nuanced drama with compelling characters, Freeheld is a rather straightforward fictionalised version of the truth with one dimensional characters. Director Peter Sollett (Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist) doesn’t add anything personal with his translation of the monochromatic script to the screen, leaving to the immensely talented cast to elevate the material.
Julianne Moore plays dying cop Laurel with her usual confidence and grace. It’s no surprise this performance was overlooked by awards season since last year she won an Oscar for playing another character plagued by illness in Still Alice. Ellen Page, on the other hand, could’ve gotten noticed for playing young mechanic Stacie with the right dose of charming sweetness, naivety and a huge heart. After coming out a couple of years ago, this role comes across as a further celebration of her true self, and her chemistry with Moore works perfectly.
Last but not least, Michael Shannon never disappoints, no matter how small a role he’s playing. Here he portrays Laurel’s police partner Dane Wells, who clearly cares about her more than just as a colleague or friend, but has no clue as to her sexuality. Shannon is an intense performer and his roles are usually as tough as he is but he’s brilliant at finding that soft spot his character needs and make it count, which he does masterfully when Dane finds out the truth and supports Laurel through thick and thin.
Freeheld’s trailer is rather upfront about Laurel’s cancer as the story’s core is indeed the fight for justice, especially when hilarious Jewish gay activist Steven Goldstein (Steve Carell), the founder and then-chair of Garden State Equality, convinces Laurel to let him put her case front and center in the fight to legalise gay marriage. Laurel is at first adamant about the fact that all she cares about is equality and Stacey is not a huge fan of the spotlight but the truth is that their case eventually contributed to the path towards marriage equality in America.
It’s important to learn Laurel and Stacie’s story but the film should’ve probably dug deeper into their relationship, especially having the license of a narrative fiction project. The short documentary effectively tells the story of their case in 40 minutes and here it feels like things are stretched out a bit in that respect. Regardless, this doesn’t necessarily undermines Freeheld’s worth when it comes to the powerful message at its heart and that many still need to understand: love is love.
Words by Francesco Cerniglia