Blu-ray Review: Freeheld (2015)

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The 2007 documentary film Freeheld won an Oscar for its telling of New Jersey police detective Laurel Hester's battle to assign her pension benefits to same-sex partner Stacie Andree. Diagnosed with late-stage cancer in 2005, Hester—who had been on the force for over 20 years—found herself unable to designate Stacie as her beneficiary. The Board of Chosen Freeholders in Ocean County, New Jersey treated the situation as a political powder keg, forcing Hester into a desperate fight-against-the-clock as her illness worsened. The original documentary is included as a bonus feature on Lionsgates new Blu-ray edition of the Peter Sollett-directed feature film Freeheld.

Freeheld stars Julianne Moore as Hester and Ellen Page as Stacie. It's hard to fault a movie whose heart is so firmly in the right place. Unfortunately, Freeheld plays more like a big-budget public service announcement than the sensitive character study it might've been. There's a perfunctory feel to Hester and Stacie's early relationship, as if director Sollett is merely marking time before Hester gets sick and we get into the crux of the conflict. Moore's interplay with Michael Shannon, excellently nuanced as Hester's partner (on the force) Dane Wells, provides consistent character-based highlights.

That said, it would've been nice to know more about Laurel Hester and Stacie Andree as people. Obviously Hollett and screenwriter Ron Nyswaner were intent on delivering a noble social commentary, but it could've been done with a far less heavy hand. The men who make up the Board of Chosen Freeholders are cardboard villains, with only Josh Charles standing out (as morally conflicted Freeholder Bryan Kelder) as more than a symbol of oppressive heteronormative culture. Freeheld tells a powerful story, but this is the kind of movie that risks preaching exclusively to the choir. Those already open-minded enough to watch the film don't need to be bopped quite so hard over the head by its message. 
Freeheld BD cover (318x380).jpg As for Lionsgate's Blu-ray, in addition to the 2007 documentary it also contains the featurettes "The Making of Freeheld" and "Freeheld to Freedom: Ocean County Then and Now." There's also audio commentary by director Scollett, accompanied by Julianne Moore and Ellen Page.

Steve Carell enters the Freeheld story late in the film as founder of Garden State Equality (a LGBT advocacy organization) Steven Goldstein. His tonally-incongruous performance (this lazy effort is really nothing more than a slightly effeminate version of Michael Scott) points to the filmmakers' failure to establish a consistently compelling tone. Definitely see the 2007 doc, but know that (despite strong performances by Moore and Page, both working with underwritten roles) the feature film drops the ball somewhat in terms of retelling the story.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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