TIFF Review: FREEHELD Is Familiar But Stirring

Freeheld handles a true story from the recent past in a respectful manner that occasionally feels rote, but nonetheless achieves some emotional power. 

Based on a short documentary made in 2007 and taking place only 10 years ago, Freeheld depicts the struggle of New Jersey police officer Laurel Hester’s battle to pass her pension on to her registered partner Stacie Andree following Hester’s terminal cancer diagnosis. The struggle for equality couldn’t be more timely in 2015 and it’s a story worth telling, even if the film itself lacks subtlety at times.

Julianne Moore plays Hester, and for a while Freeheld plays like a cop drama as she tracks downs murder suspects alongside her hard-nosed partner Dane Wells (a typically excellent Michael Shannon). Hester’s closeted at work, travelling far out of town to play in a lesbian volleyball league and letting colleagues wrongfully believe she has a thing for Wells.

She soon meets-cute with the plucky mechanic Andree (Ellen Page, pulling double duty as a producer) and the movie shifts into a depiction of their budding romance for a spell before dropping the bombshell that Hester, a heavy smoker, has developed lung cancer that ends up being terminal. It’s here that the movie shifts into message mode, and while heavy-handed at times, the story is at least told with care, heart and a clear progression.

The main conflict is Hester versus the elected Ocean County Freeholders, with the prize being her right to pass on her police pension. Domestic partnership was at the time very new in New Jersey and the Freeholder’s power allowed them to pervert the law even in the face of growing public consciousness. Some of the Freeholders are clear bigots, hiding behind religious values to support their withholding of the pension. While others (like Josh Charles’ character) are more sympathetic and eager to do the right thing, despite having their hands tied.

Hester is an interesting lead, as she not only has to come to terms with making her sexuality public (her reveal to her partner is long overdue), but becomes a figurehead for equal rights almost against her own will. She finds unlikely allies in both Wells and Garden State Equality Lawyer Steven Goldstein (a broad Steve Carell), but pointedly fights for equality and not gay marriage, despite Goldstein’s urgings. It can feel contradictory at times, but avoids misrepresenting a real person for narrative heft (although I’m certain many real life events were fictionalized here).

Moore is an actress who seems incapable of giving a bad performance, and despite an iffy accent she finds a deep well of humanity in Hester, particularly as her physical condition worsens and her resolve strengthens. Page rises to the challenge as Andree, even if her role is the less showy of the two leads (which makes sense, as Andree seems to be an introvert according to the movie).

If you suspect a rousing courtroom scene and heartstrings to be pulled you’re absolutely right, but for the most part Freeheld doesn’t overplay its hand despite the tragic nature of its subject matter. Is it at times maudlin or even predictable? Yes, but even when the strings show it’s easy to be swept in the power of Freeheld‘s story. And points for a solid score by Hans Zimmer and Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr that accomplishes much of the emotional heavy lifting in the second half.

Freeheld (2015)

Director: Peter Sollett

Runtime: 103 minutes

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