Freeheld, an elegant love story that asks us to reconsider our definition of justice for all, could use a little love right now. This handsome film is worthy of admiration, yet it has been excoriated by some of the nation's top critics. "A superficial, didactic, big-screen movie of the week," wrote the San Francisco Examiner. "Disappointingly flat," said the Boston Globe. The "tomatometer" from Rotten Tomatoes' compilation of nationwide critiques is a lousy 45 percent.
I respectfully disagree. Hell, I disrespectfully disagree. At Freeheld's foundation is a compassionate, intense, satisfying movie that champions the virtue of decency, and while I will concede expectations are extraordinarily high for a film chronicling a landmark LGBT ruling, what we have in Freeheld is a film more about how and who we choose to love, rather than legal entanglement. To ask Freeheld be held up as the end-all film about same-sex unions is as unreasonable as seeing 1993's Philadelphia as the definitive film about the AIDS crisis—though there is good reason to compare the two films: Oscar nominee Ron Nyswaner wrote both screenplays.
"I wanted to write about Laurel [Julianne Moore] and Stacie [Ellen Page] because they were ordinary people living ordinary lives, who found themselves in an extraordinary situation, and they responded in an extraordinary way," Nyswaner told Boise Weekly in September following Freeheld's world premiere at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival. "I love that because of the depth of feeling they had for each other, they found the courage to make a difference in the world."
Freeheld, directed by Peter Sollett (Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist), is based on the true story of Laurel Hester and Stacie Andree, which first drew national attention in 2005. When Hester, a 23-year veteran of the Ocean County, New Jersey Police Department, was diagnosed with terminal cancer, she made impassioned appeals for her domestic partner Stacie to receive her pension.
The role of Hester lands on Moore's impressive acting resume, which was topped off earlier this year when she picked up a Best Actress Oscar for Still Alice. Her performance in Freeheld is matched every step of the way by Page in her best work to date as Hester's partner.
"Julianne is phenomenal in this role. She's also the kindest and most generous person you can work with and a master at what she does," said Page, who was attached to Freeheld as its producer for nearly a decade, waiting to attract the ideal cast of co-stars to the project. It was worth the wait. Moore's and Page's co-stars are also stellar and include Michael Shannon (Boardwalk Empire), Josh Charles (The Good Wife) and the always-welcome Steve Carell, playing LGBT activist and lawyer Steven Goldstein.
"That's Steven with a 'v'; and by the way that means 'very gay,'" says Carell as Goldstein.
In one delicious piece of comic relief, Goldstein reminds Hester that she could marry him, allowing him to inherit her pension simply because he's a man.
"If you and I were married instead of you being married to Stacie, none of this would be a problem," Goldstein says.
"Is that a proposal?" Hester asks jokingly, to which Goldstein deadpans, "Oh honey, I'd marry you, but I wouldn't know what to do with your vagina."
"Steve Carell is a piece of genius casting," said Nyswaner with a huge laugh. "He brought a willingness to be passionate and eccentric, and he is always very, very real."
On a local note, "In the Dark," a song by Idaho native Josh Ritter, is part of Freeheld's superb soundtrack, which also includes a lush score by Oscar winner Hans Zimmer. But it's the story of Freeheld that is transformative and extraordinarily relevant because of this year's U.S. Supreme Court ruling guaranteeing the right of marriage to all persons. That alone is why Freeheld should be on your must-see list, no matter what the (other) critics say.