Greetings again from the darkness. A touching story based on the struggles of two people in love … that description fits, but leaves out the crucial details that make the saga of Laurel and Stacie so poignant and important. Laurel Hester was an Ocean County, New Jersey police officer who, like most non-heterosexual people of the era, went to extremes to conceal that part of her life for fear of personal and professional reprisals.
We catch up with Laurel (Julianne Moore) and her police partner Dane Wells (Michael Shannon) while on a drug bust in 2002. This scene is meant to quickly establish that Laurel is an excellent cop who is fully trusted by other cops. Soon after, we find Laurel and her god-awful volleyball skills flirting with Stacie (Ellen Page), a much younger auto mechanic. The two strike up a romance that leads to buying a house and jumping through the legal hoops required under the Domestic Partnership Act.
When Laurel is diagnosed with late stage lung cancer, the battle for her pension benefits begins as she goes up against the Freeholders who control Ocean County. While Stacie holds out hope for a cure and full recovery, Gay activist Steven Goldstein (Steve Carell) swoops in to generate media attention through protests and chants against the County. His cause is Gay marriage, while Laurel simply wants equality. It’s an odd differentiation that the movie dwells on, but never quite explains.
A significant social issue, a stroll on the beach, a pet dog, and a terminal illness … this sounds like the TV Guide synopsis of the latest Lifetime Channel movie. Perhaps that was the goal of screenwriter Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia, 1993), whose next movie is a sex-change love story. Fortunately, the extremely talented cast elevates the material to an emotional level that allows viewers to connect. Those opposed to the issue include the macho cops from Laurel’s own squad room, and the ultra-conservative faction on the County board – who predictably runs and hides when the conflict reaches its peak.
Julianne Moore and Ellen Page do outstanding work in allowing us to accept a romance that at times looks more like a mother/daughter relationship due to the age difference. Humor is injected with a rare drywall joke and possibly the first ever on screen tire-rotation contest. However, this isn’t a story for laughs. Rather, director Peter Sollett (Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, 2008) shows one of the many personal stories that have led to the legal authorization of gay marriage and rights. We view this acceptance through the eyes of Laurel’s partner Dane, and Michael Shannon’s low key performance prevents the role from being too clichéd. The film suffers a bit with Steve Carell’s over-the-top portrayal of the over-the-top Goldstein, but it does ring true in that desperate times call for desperate measures.
Certainly the film suffers from technical and script issues, yet the true story and the emotional subject matter, along with the fine performances, provide a clear look and reminder of some of the obstacles faced by good people over the years. Be sure to watch the closing credits for photographs of the real Laurel, Stacie, Dane and Goldstein – each (except Laurel, of course) have cameos in the film.
Freeheld on Digital HD and On Demand now and on Blu-ray Combo Pack and DVD February 2 from Lionsgate.