Let us first dispense with that awkward title: Freeheld. It’s hardly a marketing bonus to the new Julianne Moore drama, though it’s inspired by an Oscar-winning documentary short film of the same name. The title refers to the Ocean County Board of Freeholders in New Jersey, circa 2005, freeholders being local landowners who, in this case, serve as county government officials. And now you know. English majors will gravitate to the title’s pun-ny raison d’etre: since the Ocean County Board of Freeholders denies pension benefits to a legal domestic partner, a struggle ensues, leaving a lesbian couple living in the tension between being bound and yearning for freedom. And the situation is even worse, because one of the partners is dying of cancer, putting the other in jeopardy of losing the home they made together.
This is the true story of Laurel Hester (Moore), 23 years a cop in the Ocean County P.D. before cancer sidelines her and the freeholders kick her while she’s down. The film’s most convincing passages concern the fearfully closeted Laurel’s awkward-sweet mutual courtship, over volleyball and dancing, with young mechanic Stacie Andree (Ellen Page). Their initial romance proves more touching than any of the hanky-wringing, if timely, Lifetime-movie theatrics to follow. After the bureaucratic version of a wedding (“Happy domestic partnership day,” Stacie cracks), the couple settles into a house and begins home improvements, mostly at the hands of Stacie. But when the cancer diagnosis arrives and Laurel petitions, the freeholders exercise their then-legal right to choose to deny benefits to domestic partners.
Once Laurel’s very-straight partner Dane (Michael Shannon) gets wind that Laurel is gay and a victim of discrimination, he becomes a stalwart ally, but their brethren (including another closeted gay cop) will take a lot more convincing to get sociopolitical or, for that matter, personal with a lesbian. Enter Steven Goldstein of Garden State Equality, a self-described “big, loud gay Jew” eager to seize on the case as an object example in the fight for gay marriage. As flamboyantly played by Steve Carell in full-comic mode, Goldstein drives the movie straight (or gay) off a cliff. The real fella may have called every straight man he met “sweetie” and bellowed lines like “We need more Entenmann’s!”, but he comes off here as a caricature who wildly throws off the tone of an otherwise quiet drama.
No movie can fully suppress the talents of Moore, Page, and Shannon, but in Ron Nyswaner’s script, every theme gets put in a character’s mouth, and every plot point gets telegraphed, mailed, emailed, and texted ahead of its arrival. Nyswaner also wrote the controversially tiptoeing gay-themed Oscar bait Philadelphia back in 1993, and Freeheld shares that film’s crowd-pleasing nuance deficit. As directed by Peter Sollett (whose Raising Victor Vargas had no such problem), Freeheld doesn’t operate on the rhythms of reality but rather on those of morally reassuring, TV-basic light melodrama.