“Freeheld” dramatizes the story of Laurel Hester, the real-life terminally ill New Jersey police detective who, in an impassioned case in the struggle for marriage rights, successfully fought to have her pension transferred to her female domestic partner. Worthy intentions count, but too much message, clunkily delivered and at the expense of genuine emotion, sink this love story, cancer weepie and legal drama.
The creative forces aren’t duds. Director Peter Sollett made the free-flowing coming-of-ager “Raising Victor Vargas,” and screenwriter Ron Nyswaner (adapting Cynthia Wade’s Oscar-winning documentary short, also called “Freeheld”) wrote “Philadelphia.” But here, they resort to contrived scenarios.
Introduced in 2002, Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore) has served for 23 years on the Ocean County force. In a homophobic environment, she has hid her sexuality from everyone, including her longtime police partner, Dane Wells (Michael Shannon), who has an obvious crush on her.
Laurel and auto mechanic Stacie Andree (Ellen Page) meet cute on a volleyball court and go on a date. Despite their age differences — Laurel is 40-someting and Stacey 19 years younger — they fall in love, buy a house and register as domestic partners.
Then comes Laurel’s lung-cancer diagnosis. After the county’s legislative Board of Freeholders denies Laurel’s request to have her pension passed on to Stacie — a right Stacie would have were she heterosexual and able to marry — Laurel fights back. With the help of Dane and media-savvy activist Steven Goldstein (Steve Carell), she inspires the freeholders to rethink their decision.
With themes of love and marriage rights, the movie qualifies as classroom viewing, and by putting a human face on the consequences of inequality, it may bring about some still-needed awareness.
Still, overall, it’s a superficial, didactic, big-screen movie of the week with situations that, even if true, come off as artificial. One of the freeholders develops a guilty conscience. Laurel’s case inspires a male gay cop to come out.
These elements make it impossible for the dying Laurel’s emergence as an unlikely activist, out of love for her life partner, to affect viewers deeply.
Moore can make even bad material involving. It’s easy to compare this performance to her superior turn in last year’s “About Alice,” as dramas about women battling tragic illnesses go.
Page, like Moore, gets a speech to deliver, and she rotates a tire with aplomb. But she is mostly stuck looking devoted and tearful in this underdeveloped role.
The Laurel-Stacie dynamics are, in fact, less interesting than those of Laurel and police partner Dane. who goes to bat for Laurel. As Dane, Shannon delivers the film’s richest performance.
Carell’s Goldstein (“I’m a big loud gay Jew”) is ineffective over-the-top comic relief.
Starring Julianne Moore, Ellen Page, Michael Shannon, Steve Carell
Written by Ron Nyswaner
Directed by Peter Sollett
Running time 1 hour, 43 minutes