Review: FREEHELD

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)

In 2015 the United State Supreme Court, in the landmark case of Oberfell v. Hodges, ruled that same-sex couples have the right to marry.  This decision not only legalizes civil unions between couples of all sexes, but it now impacts the legal benefits that come with marital unions.  In 2005, ten years before this historic ruling, rights for domestic partnerships did not come easily and another landmark battle took place in Ocean County, New Jersey.  Diagnosed with stage IV terminal cancer, respected police detective Laurel Hester fought for pension benefits for her surviving partner Stacie Andree.  Hester, despite her stellar police record, faced opposition from the Ocean County Board of Freeholders when she proposed that domestic partners receive the same pension benefits as marital spouses.  Peter Sollet’s Freeheld tells this important story.

Academy Award winner Julianne Moore stars as Alice Hester, a police detective who is good at her job and holds the respect of her police partner Dane Wells (Michael Shannon) and their esteemed colleagues and superiors on the force.  Hester may be a superstar at the department, but doesn’t have much of a social/love life.  When she meets Stacie Andree (Ellen Page) at a volleyball game, the attraction is undeniable and the two women eventually fall in love and commit to a domestic partnership.  When Alice falls gravely ill and is facing her mortality, she must summon her will and last bit of strength to fight the government for the right to name Stacie as the beneficiary of her pension.

Written by Ron Nyswaner, the Academy Award nominated writer of the movie Philadelphia, and directed Peter Sollett (Raising Victor Vargas), Freeheld works well on two different levels.  First, it tells a poignant and ultimately heartbreaking love story.  Secondly, it tells a highly relevant, triumphant story about a long running battle for equal rights.  One might scoff at the timing of a film that comes after the fact that the Supreme Court has already ruled in favor of extending the right of marriage to couples of all genders; however, I feel it is important to acknowledge and highlight the battles that helped pave the way to this decision.  Sollett doesn’t bring anything exceptional in terms of direction to his film, opting for a minimal and understated style. It is really Nyswaner’s writing that stands out, though.  He develops his characters so well, revealing their most human qualities in their more intimate moments.

It is also helps that Nyswaner and Sollett have an excellent cast in the film.  Both Page and Moore shine here breathing life into their roles and beautifully expressing all of the emotions that come with courtship, dating, commitment, passion, heartbreak and grief.  It is so great to see Michael Shannon in a much more amiable role instead of the usual bizarre and twisted villains for which he is often typecast.  He credibly and competently assumes the role of a veteran detective who willfully fights alongside his police partner.  The huge surprise for me (even though I shouldn’t be surprised) is Steve Carell who is absolutely hilarious as the militant gay rights activist Steven Goldstein.  Carell brings some welcome comic relief to help offset some of the tense and upsetting moments in the film.  I suppose I was surprised because I didn’t expect Carell’s character to be a source of comedy in an otherwise serious film.

Though not as gorgeously directed and produced as Philadelphia, Freeheld is nevertheless a great film.  Ron Nyswaner has written another extraordinary script and both Julianne Moore and Ellen Page have added some outstanding performances to their acting resume.  Page, who stars in what is probably her most mature role to date, deserves to be recognized for her work here. I hope to see her take on more challenging adult roles from now on.

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