Cynthia Wade’s Oscar-winning 2007 documentary “Freeheld” tracks the stirring experiences of New Jersey police officer Laurel Hester, who fought for the right to give her pension to her younger partner Stacie after Hester was struck with brain cancer. Adapting the situation into narrative form, screenwriter Ron Nyswaner takes a page from his “Philadelphia” playbook with an ultra-sentimental, by-the-book scenario pitched to many more viewers than its built-in base. Unfortunately, while Julianne Moore and Ellen Page go great lengths to make the central romance convince, Nyswaner’s undercooked script and Peter Sollett’s direction have the opposite effect, reducing “Freeheld” to a tired formula.
“Freeheld” works best in its first act, when it sets up the successful professional life that Hester (Moore) has carried on for nearly three decades. In the field with her longtime partner (Michael Shannon), she’s a ruthless workaholic, busting drug dealers in ambitious stings and getting dusted up on more than one equation. Still closeted out of fear for her livelihood, she meets Stacie (Page) at a women’s volleyball game and they quickly hit it off. At a bar, Stacie forces the nervous Hester to the dance floor and slowly gets her to relax. These scenes create the sense of a genuine bond taking shape, which sets the stage for the tragic process through which its future unravels. As the couple settle into a house together, Hester is forced to share the details of her private life with her co-worker, a hardened straight man who struggles to process the information.
Shannon’s dry mannerisms are a natural fit for the part, but he’s little more than a vessel for the gradual emergence of progressive attitudes at the center of the movie. With Stacie’s support, Hester manages to come out in a convincing fashion. “He’s not your partner,” Hester tells Stacie. “I am.”
That’s where “Freeheld” unravels. Once Hester receives her diagnosis and applies for a pension, the movie cuts to a scene of New Jersey Freeholders gleefully rejecting her application (“She doesn’t look like a lesbian,” one of them says with a grin). These typical narrow-minded white men in suits include roles for Tom McGowan as a religious extremist eager to apply his values to the vote and Josh Charles as one member of the group with reservations about their decision, which obviously sets the stage for a rousing climax.
From its intimate beginnings, “Freeheld” is quickly hijacked by the political activism that springs up to support Hester’s situation — and, more specifically, by Steve Carell, in a dispiritingly one-note part as the leader of a gay activist group eager to hijack the situation to push a gay marriage agenda. Delivering a broad comedic performance (“it’s Steven, with a ‘v’ for ‘very gay'”), Carell works against the potential for brooding drama found in last year’s “Foxcatcher” and instead strikes a mocking tone. Invading the Freeholders’ courtroom with scores of protestors yelling “You’ve got the power!”, it’s clear that he doesn’t.
Shannon, seemingly in another movie altogether, brings a stern, consequential element to his part as he battles to gain support for Hester’s situation from their fellow officers. But even here, “Freeheld” seems all too obvious: None of the team offers to pitch in, but one man shows some reservations about his decision, his free will seemingly compromised by a story that has already figured out where he’s headed.
The story takes for granted these developments to the point where it offers no suspense or unexpected twists. It’s a purely celebratory look at a sensational victory for the gay rights movement, but doesn’t manage to sublimate those ingredients into a convincing framework. That’s all the more disappointing coming from Sollett, whose previous two features (“Raising Victor Vargas” and “Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist”) offered playful studies of romantically complicated urban loners. Where those movies struck a delicate balance of ironic attitude and sincerity, “Freeheld” drowns its tone in the heavy-handed speeches that dominate its final act. While obviously stirring in a real-life context, as material delivered by recognizable actors in a setting mandated by its foregone conclusion, the showdowns between Hester and the Freeholders feels both visually flat and didactic.
These sequences are ultimately at odds with another, far more gentler movie. Moore’s somber, tough look provides an impressive contrast with her frantic state in the last movie that found her dying of a terminal disease, 2014’s “Still Alice.” But the central appeal of “Freeheld” involves Page’s character, a young, alienated woman who doesn’t fully comprehend the value of fighting for a pension until the community rallies behind her. When Sollett focuses on Stacie’s attempt to find her own job as a mechanic, upstaging a bunch of misogynist guys, Page gets the chance to play a credible figure of social revolt, with her small figure belying an internal strength. It makes the case for a gentler movie that works around the blatant social issues at stake to convey a more personal struggle.
Ultimately, though, “Freeheld” collapses into a heartwarming sub-Frank Capra finale that should catch no one by surprise. Though the tearjerker quality of the closing minutes certainly get the job done, they’re not enough to salvage the obvious beats preceding them. Released months after the nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage, “Freeheld” is simultaneously timely and out of touch. While “Philadelphia” was engineered to explain the AIDS crisis to less sympathetic viewers, “Freeheld” has the vibe of an activist statement that missed its moment. In its closing credits, the movie reveals images of the actual characters over the course of their relationship. Bringing the story back to its origins, “Freeheld” makes a better case for watching the documentary.
“Freeheld” premiered this week at the Toronto International Film Festival. It opens October 2.