DVD Review: Freeheld (USA, 2015)

If Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore) was never diagnosed with terminal cancer, she may never have come out. With 20 years of service for the New Jersey State Police, being a woman was hard enough.  Now, she wants to make sure her pension goes to her spouse, Stacie Andree (Ellen Page), so she can stay in the house they built together.

Laurel takes her case to the board of freeholders by writing them a nice, polite letter. Regretfully (sort of), they can’t help her. Pensions go to your wife or husband, not your domestic partner, that’s just the way it is. The only emotion from the board is one of surprise – she never seemed like a lesbian. That’s interesting because, whatever a lesbian does seem like, I had trouble seeing her as anything else.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as they say. Except that Laurel and Stacie’s romance has LGBT hanging over every scene. Exchanges that should be sexual or tender have that subtext just below the surface, as if they’re never really thinking of anything else.

Part of that comes from a pattern of exposition that goes a little something like this: establishing shot of their house, conversation about wanting to be the first female lieutenant in the county, the phone rings, cancer. Establishing shot of the auto-shop where Stacie works, homophobic jeers behind blinding headlights, phone rings, more cancer.

Sure, this is all based on true events, so it may have happened just that way. But if the truth was a ship and the film was a bottle, this is like groups of two, three events haphazardly glued together, rattling around without a cohesive whole.

That is, until activist Steven Goldstein (Steve Carrell) hears about their story and barges into their living room, urging them to make their appeal part of the marriage-equality movement. The potential for national recognition and, just, general disruption is irresistible to him. That tension – between his joyful ruthlessness and the couple trying to cherish each final moment– provides the most affecting arc of the film, though it is barely explored.

For Laurel’s professional partner Dane (Michael Shannon) and life partner Stacie, Goldstein seems to be a minor annoyance. Perhaps he was. It’s a shame that – in life and art – their simple romance can’t escape the political rigmarole of queerness.

Review Score: TWO AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Freeheld is available on DVD and Blu-ray now.

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