I cringe whenever a movie starts by putting the audience on notice: It’s either “based on a true story” or “inspired by a true story” or, my favorite, “based on actual events.” The warning always makes me think that somebody’s lying or spraying the facts with Hollywood sweeteners. Freeheld has its fair share of sugar substitutes. And there’s a rote quality to the script by Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia). But the movie gets to you, mostly because Julianne Moore and Ellen Page, as lovers in crisis, give unerringly heartfelt performances. If Freeheld cuts corners to get its point across, Moore and Page never do. You’ll be with them all the way.
Moore plays Laurel Hester, a New Jersey detective who keeps her sexual identity as a lesbian a secret even from her longtime police partner Dane Wells (a terrific Michael Shannon). Then she meets the much younger Stacie Andree (Ellen Page), a mechanic who is soon sharing Laurel’s home and who inspires her to come out, which Laurel does very, very slowly.
What speeds things up in 2005 is a tragic medical diagnosis for Laurel. She has late-stage lung cancer. Credit director Peter Sollett (Raising Victor Vargas) for not exploiting that situation for easy tears. He could have. But Freeheld has another agenda, the one that makes a personal story political. It starts when Laurel, after 23 years of service, names Stacie the beneficiary of her pension benefits. That’s when the Board of Freeholders of Ocean County, New Jersey, steps in and refuses the request. No way are these traditionalists going to recognize the domestic partnership of two lesbians. It’s satisfying to realize how far the LGBT community and the Supreme Court have come in just a decade. But it wasn’t the case here.
It’s Laurel and Stacie against a panel of five Republican county legislators, or freeholders, in a case that made headlines. That it stirred up the media as well was due in large part to Steven Goldstein (Steve Carell), the founder of Garden State Equality. Carell cannily lets us see that Goldstein, a New York Jew, is using his “honey-sweetie” flamboyance to get attention. That he does.
Laurel’s legal success is a foregone conclusion, but she’s no gay-marriage activist. She wants justice for the woman she loves and in getting it she achieves a moral victory. Cancer would take Laurel at 49, but the supremely gifted Moore shows us the scrapper Laurel stayed till the end. And Page, who came out herself last year and helped produce the film, illuminates the striving force in Stacie. Freeheld labels its heroes and villains too broadly and simplifies when it most needs to stay knotty, but keep your eyes on Moore and Page and you’ll know your seeing the truth.