The true story at the heart of Laurel Hester and Staciee Andree, chronicled previously in Cynthia Wade’s inspiring 2007 documentary “Freeheld: The Laurel Hester Story”, makes an indisputable case for marriage equality in this country. That film worked on a number of levels, serving to fire up audiences at the mistreatment of two women whose love is treated as secondary to traditional unions. A lot has changed in the years since; the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage ruling has leveled the playing field on a national scale, and sadly takes some of the fire out of Peter Sollet’s well-meaning narrative drama. If poor timing were the only problem plaguing “Freeheld” it could be easily overcome, but it’s actually in the transition from documentary to Hollywood feature that it loses a great deal of steam.
As previously stated, Hester (Julianne Moore) and Andree’s (Ellen Page) story isn’t without its share of thrills, miscarriages of justice, and outright denial of the basic human right to love who one wants. The problem is that Ron Nyswaner’s screenplay goes out of its way to make their situation as average as people. It doesn’t help that the central characters come across as unexciting, and their courtroom battles with New Jersey’s Board of Chosen Freeholders isn’t much better.
What saves the film somewhat are the lead performances by Moore and Page, the latter having put a lot of herself into bringing this story to the big screen. Hester is a tough-as-nails New Jersey cop keeping her sexuality tucked away in the closet, even from her loyal partner Dane Wells (Michael Shannon, purely in good guy mode) who may have a slight crush. Because she has to hide so much of herself, Hester is essentially a loner until she meets up with the tomboyish Andree while playing volleyball. Despite the vast age difference, the two hit it off and soon settle into common domestic bliss. House with a garden, a dog, and bland everyday relationship troubles. Much of the film goes by without any kind of tension until a doctor’s phone call reveals Hester’s terminal cancer diagnosis, and even that goes by without causing much of a stir.
The second half of the film is where the conflict finally arises, as Hester battles with the board of Freeholders (Josh Charles plays one) to make sure her pension goes to Andree after her death. Despite state law allowing for that to happen, the conservative board rejects it so as not to rile up their base of supporters who don’t care much for the gays. These encounters, mostly taking place in a tiny courtroom, hold little drama except for the pang of sadness you’ll feel at watching Hester deteriorate. But there’s also triumph in her defiant stance to make sure the woman she loves is cared for and protected after she’s gone.
Moore, who won an Oscar for playing an ill woman in “Still Alice”, is once again the film’s driving force. Page is solid in a role that doesn’t require her to do much but stay on the sidelines and occasionally show signs of anguish. Steve Carell blows in like a tornado as Steven Goldstein, the wildly flamboyant head of an LGBT group supporting Hester’s cause. It’s possible that Goldstein is every bit as animated as he’s portrayed in the film, but the moment Carell shows up it’s like he walked in from some cheap Lifetime movie.
Too much of “Freeheld” plays like a cinematic Wikipedia entry. The struggle for any biopic is to remain true to the story while adding the creative flourish that every feature film needs, and “Freeheld”, despite its good intentions, never manages to do that.