Freeheld is a re-enactment of the events covered in the 2007 Documentary of the same name, which won an Oscar for Best Documentary, Short Subjects. It was this week’s selection for the latest season of The Arthouse Film Festival. Currently, it’s had a limited release, but it will move to more theaters soon enough.
Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore) is a police detective in Ocean County, NJ. Her partner Dane Wells (Michael Shannon) is interested in her, but has not made any sort of overt ‘move’ towards that sort of relationship. It wouldn’t matter anyway, because she becomes involved with Stacy Andree (Ellen Page), who buy a house together and get on with their lives. They even file for a Domestic Partnership, which allows some, but not all of the benefits of a legal marriage.
Laurel becomes ill. She is diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, and her focus becomes making sure that Stacy receives her pension benefits after she passes on. Stacy is more focused on getting Laurel better. The Domestic Partnership law does not outright grant Stacy those benefits, since she’s not a NJ State employee, but a NJ County employee. It is said that the decision to grant the benefits is left to the discretion of the County Freeholders, who, traditionally, have only decided all their votes with a unanimous decision. They initially deny Laurel’s request. That’s when the fun begins.
A gay activist, Steven Goldstein (Steve Carell) hears of the ruling, and is determined to make them overturn it. He’s willing to pick up the fight for Laurel, as he sees it as one step closer to marriage equality. Laurel just wants what’s fair, and doesn’t want to raise a stink. Stacy urges her onward, as Laurel’s treatments kick into high gear.
This film has an undercurrent of acceptance, and a desire for equality, which is what Laurel wants. If the system wasn’t ready for that, then that’s OK, let someone else take up the crusade. There’s a lot of give and take, to get to the core of the issue, which is that people are essentially driven by the same needs – security, family, and a sense of belonging.
Overall, it’s a really good movie. Michael Shannon’s performance is a bit stodgy, as that’s what his character seems to be, but a lot of that is Shannon himself. I was originally seeing him as a wooden kind of guy, but his transition towards acceptance really works well. Steve Carell is a bit over the top in his performance, and I expected that, knowing the sort of characters he plays. Fortunately, all the players have dimensions and do change over time. In the post-movie discussion, I heard that the role originally was supposed to go to Zach Galifianakis, but there was a scheduling conflict. While he may have been too flamboyant, Carell manages to pull it off anyway.
There were more than a few “oh, look, it’s that guy…and that guy!” The freeholders were all made up of those guys, including Josh Charles, Tom McGowan, and Dennis Boutsikaris, to name three. They rounded out the cast well.
I do recommend this film. I haven’t seen too many Oscar-worthy performances this year, so this film may have some. I was stunned to see that the ‘song for the movie’ that rolls over the credits is “Hands of Love” was written by Linda Perry, and performed by Miley Cyrus (!). That will get a nom, fer sure.