“You have the power, you have the power.” So chant the protestors at a meeting of the Ocean County Board of Chosen Freeholders. Led by the shrewd, fierce Steven Goldstein (Steve Carell), the group is assembled before five white straight men in suits, who do their best to remain apart, seated behind their bench, looking down at Steven, who goes so far as to kneel as he chants.
At once dramatic and comic, Steven’s performance does what it’s designed to do, which is to highlight and challenge the power of the board. At this and other moments in Freeheld, this power is a function of tradition and ritual, of resistance to change and fear of difference, especially loud difference. Steven here embodies change and difference, being a gay Jewish activist who’s arrived in town with the express purpose of rattling the board, of making them reverse a decision they made months before, a decision by which they denied a decorated state police detective’s request that her pension go to her wife.
Make that her domestic partner. It’s a distinction that matters in Freeheld, based on an Oscar-winning documentary short of the same name and set in 2005’s New Jersey, before same-sex marriage was legally recognized (in 2013). Following the real-life case, the board of freeholders is set against Laurel (Julianne Moore) and Stacie (Ellen Page), who become reluctant activists even as Laurel is enduring Stage 4 cancer and chemo, which is to say, she becomes increasingly weak physically as she becomes increasingly determined spiritually, psychically, and politically.
Her transformation is at once compelling, devastating, and a bit contrived. Much as she does in Still Alice, Moore exposes the complications of such a radical transformation, the nuance of her performance sometimes working against the soapy inclination of Ron Nyswaner’s script. Introduced as a successful veteran detective, resolutely closeted on the job. Hoping to become the department’s first female lieutenant, she maintains a polished, wholly under-control appearance (pants suits and Farrah Fawcett-style hair), and keeps her secret even from her longtime partner, Dane (Michael Shannon).
To keep her lives separate, Laurel drives to Pennsylvania to play volleyball, where she’s at once hopeful and horrified to meet Stacie. Their romance is a thing pretty much instantly, and save for a few arguments, as Stacie resents having to play Laurel’s “friend” and then “roommate”, their commitment is established in order that the film can move on to its focus on broader social and political conflicts.
It does this mostly by showing the effects of the public struggle on straight folks. In this, Freehold recalls Nyswaner’s sPhiladelphia, inviting you, dear straight reader, to identify with Dane as he makes his own way from shock when she comes out (how could he not have known?) to his own resentment (why didn’t she confide in him, her partner?), from his unthinking prejudice (assuming that the pension is only for a married person)) to his out-loud support (he starts rallying — shaming, really — the other cops to her cause, primarily depicted here as guys worried about preserving their highly performative macho swagger, glancing at one another and then away whenever he makes an appeal in the squad room.
The camera follows suit, observing the men one by one, occasionally lingering on the one detective (Luke Grimes) whom you know is gay because he and Laurel spotted one another at a local bar one evening. As the film underlines this point, that Laurel’s not the only individual in the unit with a secret, you’re reminded of the difficulty of sustaining performances over time. Freeheld doesn’t quite trust you to understand this on your own, however, and so includes a scene where Laurel speaks alone in an interview room with a frightened witness to a murder (Mina Sundwall), talking around her own situation, concerning the stress of keeping a secret and the self-hatred it can engender.
This interview sets Laurel and the girl in a stark room in a conventionally masculine domain and movie convention. As they look at one another across the wide gray table, they might be mirror images of themselves and each other, visibly fearful and not quite as fearful, young and old, It’s a scene that resonates here, but Freeheld again moves on, insistent on its episodic business.
This business takes a turn when Steven arrives, as he launches Laurel and Stacie’s private melodrama into a public demonstration. That’s his job — both as the character and as Steve Carell — and the movie’s rhythms turn hectic as it works to accommodate him and also admire Laurel and Stacie’s quieter strengths. During one performance at a board meeting, Steven and his group’s protests are intercut with Stacie’s shaving of Laurel’s head, as chemo takes its dreadful effects. The point is clear, too clear, that the protests against public indignities and discriminations have little to do with the intimate, stunning losses imposed by cancer.
Even as Freeheld only makes a brief note about the brutal practices of the health care and insurance systems, leaving that argument to another movie, it seems overwhelmed by the story it means to tell, its many turns and contradictions. And so it focuses on its message, delivering it, much like Steven does his, repeatedly and noisily.