The 400-Word Review: Freeheld
By Sean Collier
October 22, 2015
I’m not sure the name of the genre that Freeheld, Peter Sollett’s narrative adaptation of Cynthia Wade’s Oscar-winning 2007 documentary short, belongs to. The film recounts the true story of police office Laurel Hester’s battle to leave her pension to Stacie Andree, her domestic partner, against a reactionary rejection by local county officials.
It’s a moving and beautiful tale, despite bearing hallmarks of real-life drama that come close to cliché. The unlikely but profound coupling of two flawed people. The sudden, life-changing complication (Hester’s late-stage lung cancer diagnosis). The single rebellious voice in the system railing against a more powerful establishment. The frightening moments of bigotry and hatred.
It’s a subgenre of some kind — civil-rights drama? Romance of equality? Perhaps Freeheld’s greatest achievement, then, is how thoroughly it triumphs in spite of a somewhat formulaic script by Ron Nyswaner.
We meet Hester (Julianne Moore) not long before she first encounters Andree (Ellen Page), and ride through the rocky early stages of their relationship; with ambitions of a high rank in the Ocean County, N.J., police force, Hester must remain closeted and secretive to a fault. Those fears are forgotten after her diagnosis, particularly as Hester’s long-term (police) partner Dane Wells (Michael Shannon) becomes one of her most tireless advocates.
Blessed levity is lent by Steve Carell, who appears midway as Steven Goldstein, a gay rights advocate for a flair for the dramatic. But few will be able to resist the humble, heartfelt drive of Hester, who knew that Andree could only keep their home if she was allowed to keep Hester’s pension.
Sollett certainly doesn’t do a poor job, but his inexperience shows; Freeheld is only his third feature and his first since 2008’s lighthearted Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. Drama is an ill-fitting suit on the young director, though he shows a fine ability to lead his performers to some of their best work.
Perhaps Freeheld is a case where any treatment, good or bad, would be likely to draw compassion. But if the film does not shine on the page and fails to dazzle in the camera, it excels in truth — and in performance. In the hands of Moore (better here than in last year’s Oscar-winning role in Still Alice) and Page (almost certainly giving the performance of her career to date), it would take a heart of stone not to be moved to tears.
My Rating: 8/10
Sean Collier is the Associate Editor of Pittsburgh Magazine and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Read more from Sean at pittsburghmagazine.com/afterdark