By Cathy Leung
Laurel Hester is a grumpy New Jersey cop with an immensely distracting 70s hairdo. Skilled and good at her job, she’s also ambitious and hides her homosexuality from her work colleagues in the fear that it could hinder her prospects. All that changes when she meets the spirited Stacie Andree, a much younger car mechanic who asks for her number after playing against her volleyball team. So, two women meet and fall in love, what else? Well the inciting incident in Freeheld is two-fold: not only does Hester discover, after forming a civil partnership with Andree, that she has a terminal illness, but her equal rights have been denied on the rejection of her application to transfer her police force pension to Andree in the event of her imminent death. In other words, lots of dramatic potential.
Julianne Moore is no stranger to this kind of role, having won an Oscar for her portrayal of a early onset Alzheimers patient in Still Alice last year. She plays Hester with a striking no-nonsense gruffness, even as she publicly addresses the officials she’s fighting against, the county’s Freeholders, she keeps it short and simple. Moore is paired with the tiny Ellen Page of Juno fame in the role of Stacie Andree. Though you sense some her typical dry delivery at first, by the end of the film Page gently builds up an emotional depth we’re not used to seeing from her performances.
However, despite the film centering on Hester and Andree’s story, it’s surprising that two male character somehow steal the show. Michael Shannon, playing Hester’s police partner, detective Dane Wells, plays out the most marked character arc and his development and quiet passion somehow unintentionally outshines the rest of the cast. Gay rights activist, Steven Goldstein (Steve Carell) is the polar opposite of Wells, played with a comedic twist: loud and in your face. In fact, from the moment you hear Carell’s voice, it seems the whole film lifts in energy. About halfway through the film, the drama moves to the courtroom and we meet the five Ocean County freeholders that give the film it’s title. A freeholder is the name for New Jersey’s elected county officials, and they are resolute that Andree is not eligible to receive Hester’s pension when she dies. And so the ‘baddies’ are revealed, and with one exception played out to tired cliche as Hester keeps fighting their decision. This element of the film lacks suspension unfortunately, and overall Freeheld is an odd mix; part romance, part cop-buddy drama, part legal procedural and part social history. So director, Peter Sollett, has taken an Oscar-winning short documentary based on a true story and made a bit of a mess. Known mostly for Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2008) up until now – and he’s not really known much for that – he played down the emotion and ended up giving us a very missable drama.
Though its just hitting Dutch cinemas, this is a film that might as well be seen on the small screen if you can wait for it to hit iTunes. There’s nothing particularly bad about Freeheld, it’s just that that there’s nothing particularly great about it either.