Julianne Moore draws magic from the mundane in Freeheld, Peter Sollett’s feature-length adaptation of Cynthia Wade’s 2007 Oscar-winning documentary of the same name about Laurel Hester, the New Jersey police officer who fought, while dying of stage 4 lung cancer, to have her pension benefits extended to her domestic partner. One marvels at the way the actress effortlessly flits layers of meaning across her face, hinting at the mysteries of a woman the film prefers to see as a prop in the crusade for gay marriage.
Laurel (Moore) wants to make lieutenant in a homophobic environment, and as such feels like she must remain closeted. The panic she feels at the possibility of being outed possesses almost everything she does, even conversations with her lover, Stacie (Ellen Page). But Moore has a way of playing against the hysteric that feels humanely considered. When Laurel irrationally pauses a phone call with Stacie when a man, oblivious to her presence, walks past her, the actress lets you understand the character’s innate fear without ever veering into the bathetic.
Freeheld is abundant in scenes featuring Moore and Page poignantly wrestling with the pathology of the closet. Laurel makes the choice to live inside it, but she asks Stacie, who’s younger, butchier, more liberated, to help her keep the door shut. Both actresses get at the complexities that underscore this dynamic, from Laurel’s arrogant presumptuousness to Kacie’s exasperation, with an empathy that’s striking. It’s a richness that also arises from the breathtaking un-self-consciousness with which Moore and Page communicate the intimacy their two working-class characters share.
And the filmmakers, for better and for worse, stay out of the actresses’ way, as Freeheld’s artistry is so unadorned that the performances somehow feel more naked as a result. When Laurel goes to get her blood taken, one first senses in Moore’s face a woman’s fear of needles, and then, a beat later, her fear of the victim she may become, and that split-second progression Moore charts is so artful that one wishes the film itself were half as resourceful.
That level of commitment might have radicalized the film’s second half, which largely focuses on banging the drum for Garden State Equality’s Steven Goldstein (Steve Carell) and his efforts to combat the freeholders who voted against allowing Laurel to pass on her pension benefits to Kacie. The film recognizes Laurel’s reluctance to be used as a symbol for marriage equality without grappling with it, carting her off to the sidelines of her own narrative so as to thrill to Steven’s sassy politicking and score easy points on the hypocrisy and sanctimony that underscores the freeholders’ decision-making.
A film about the victimhood of the closet becomes a cringingly stilted montage reel about the freeholders and Laurel’s fellow police officers being, like all the Kim Davises of the world, on the wrong side of history. By the end, you may still cry over Laurel’s death and the victory she secured for her lover, but your tears may also be for how this glorified PSA embraces the smugness that Moore and Page’s performances pointedly shun throughout.