A compelling story lies at the center of Freeheld. It’s based on the true story of Laurel Hester, a police officer from Ocean County, New Jersey who fought for her pension benefits to go to her domestic partner, Stacie Andree, after being diagnosed with lung cancer in 2005. The subject matter was already the subject of a short documentary, also named Freeheld, which won an Oscar. Not all stories are able to make the jump to narrative features, though, and in spite of a strong subject and a talented cast, Freeheld can’t escape being a bad film.
Laurel (Julianne Moore) works in a conservative part of New Jersey, and she’s chosen to stay in the closet so that she can advance at work. She’s regularly single, until she meets Stacie (Ellen Page) while playing volleyball on a lesbian team that’s an hour away from Laurel’s hometown. Stacie’s attracted to Laurel, and Laurel agrees to meet Stacie at a gay bar for a date. On the date, though, Stacie learns quickly exactly how scared Laurel is about being outed. Eventually, Stacie and Laurel fall in love. Within a few years, they’re buying a house together and signing up for a domestic partnership, recently allowed by the state of New Jersey.
Soon after, though, Laurel is diagnosed with lung cancer. As Laurel gets worse, she begins to worry about Stacie, who earns significantly less as an auto mechanic and wouldn’t be able to afford the home’s mortgage on her own. Due to a provision in New Jersey’s state law, each county has the right to approve the transfer of benefits. Laurel appeals to the county board in Ocean County, a group called freeholders, but they refuse to grant her request. This, in turn, leads to Garden State Equality and its leader, Steve Goldstein (Steve Carell), turning future public freeholders meetings into forums for political protest. Laurel’s partner, Dane Wells (Michael Shannon), also works to help his partner get the support he knows she deserves from within the police department.
To their credit, Moore and Page both deliver strong performances. Moore handles Laurel’s physical deterioration with aplomb, acing a pivotal scene during a freeholders meeting. Page’s performance seems more hesitant earlier on, but she delivers as Laurel becomes more sick, showing how much Stacie refuses to accept Laurel’s fate. Their chemistry is also convincing; there’s a shakiness earlier on that eventually gives way to the sort of relationship that results from years of living together.
The other key cast members, though, don’t fare as well. Shannon seems lost in his role, which becomes more noteworthy as Laurel becomes more ill. In the second half of the film, as Laurel undergoes treatment and Stacie is by her side, Wells becomes a larger figure in the narrative. While it makes logical sense for Laurel (and, in conjunction, Stacie) to become less prominent as Laurel becomes increasingly ill, it’s still unsettling to see her replaced by a heterosexual white man. There may be a basis in reality here, but Freeheld could have found a way to still at least feature Laurel and Stacie more regularly in the film’s back half. As for Carell, his take on Goldstein manages to outdo a figure whose presence is already larger than life in reality. It’s jarring in the context of the film, even taking into account how disruptive Goldstein is in Ocean County.
More astonishingly, though, is how limp the film is overall. Part of it is due to the script, which plays with the timing of the real-life story and makes everything play out in a narrative that hews to conventional forms. Even Moore and Page struggle at times working with the lines provided by the script. What’s more astonishing, though, are the names associated with other aspects of production. Director Peter Sollett’s credits include Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. Cinematographer Maryse Alberti shot Velvet Goldmine. Hans Zimmer has composed a wide range of impactful scores for films in a wide range of genres. Simply watching the film offers no indication of the creative minds at play here. There’s no energy to the film at all, and no matter how compelling the subject matter here is, it can’t compensate for Freeheld‘s dullness.