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Family Movie Review: Freeheld (PG-13)

Freeheld ChesapeakeFamilyMovieReviewKernel Rating (out of 5): whole popcorn kernalwhole popcorn kernalwhole popcorn kernal

MPAA Rating: PG-13        Length: 103 minutes

Age Appropriate For: 13+. The film is based on the true story of a lesbian couple in New Jersey who battled for equal legal rights under their domestic partnership; it includes some cursing and derogatory language, such as slurs for lesbians and women; a rude hand gesture; some kissing and implied sex scenes; some sexually themed jokes and discussions; some routine cop-on-the-job violence, like a police officer getting dragged by a car; and the effects of chemotherapy and radiation treatment on a person, including vomiting and hair loss.

Strong performances are all throughout ‘Freeheld,’ which retells the true story of a New Jersey couple fighting for equal rights under their domestic partnership. But the film spends much more time on the heterosexual, white, male point of view than is necessary.

By Roxana Hadadi

Ostensibly, “Freeheld” is about a same-sex couple fighting for equal rights under their domestic partnership, arguing that their love between two women is just as valid as the love between a woman and a man. But the film spends a surprising amount of time on the male perspective, and by the second half of “Freeheld,” you’ll think this is a movie about shaming straight people into LGBT-supporting action, not the actions of those LGBT people themselves.

Based on a true story, “Freeheld” takes place in 2002 and focuses on a climactic moment in the fight toward LGBT equality, and eventually marriage equality, in the United States. Before marriage was legal across the country, many states forced their gay and lesbian couples into domestic partnerships, which were more rigorous to obtain than marriage licenses and didn’t necessarily afford their participants the same healthcare or pension rights that heterosexual couples would have.

That began to change, though, with the events documented in “Freeheld,” which focuses on the experiences of a lesbian couple fighting for the procurement of pension rights. Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore, of “Seventh Son”), a decorated police detective, has devoted her life to fighting crime. She’s close with her partner, Dane Wells (Michael Shannon, of “They Came Together”), but not so close that he knows she’s gay. Instead, Laurel travels out of New Jersey to date, and at a lesbian volleyball game she meets the much-younger Stacie Andree (Ellen Page, of “X-Men: Days of Future Past”).

Although Laurel is more uptight than Stacie and extremely vigilant about not revealing her sexuality to the community, there’s a spark immediately. They want the same things – “house, yard, dog, partner” – and over a few years, they obtain a domestic partnership and start their lives together.

But then Laurel gets sick, and their battle to obtain Laurel’s police pension for Stacie begins. Dane is in, and so is out-and-proud lawyer and activist Steven Goldstein (Steve Carell, of “Minions”). But everyone wants different things – Laurel wants equal treatment, Dane wants their coworkers to respect Laurel’s years as their colleague, Stacie wants to believe Laurel will get better, and Steven wants to use Laurel’s story in the fight for gay marriage rights – and it’s unclear whether they can get on the same page as Laurel gets more sick by the day.

“Freeheld” is an admirablly intentioned movie, but it almost feels too calculated the whole time, with a very pat script and soundbite dialogue. But its first half focuses, rightly, on Laurel and Stacie; there isn’t real chemistry between Moore and Page, more of a familiar affection, but that helps sell the domesticity of their long-term relationship. When Stacie says of Laurel’s relationship with Dane, “I’m your partner – he’s the person you work with,” you understand the layers of frustration there. But while Shannon is an excellent actor, and he gives Dane great empathy, when the film switches to his point of view, it suffers.

Gone is the focus on what Laurel and Stacie are going through, and instead the focus becomes what Dane is going through: How Dane feels seeing his partner get sick, how Dane bonds with Stacie, how Dane encourages the other police officers to care for Laurel, how Dane provides for her, how Dane does this and Dane does that. The moment “Freeheld” moves away from being about the lesbian experience and replaces that with the straight ally experience, it loses its primary objective.

By the end, a whole series of heterosexual, white, male characters get their “I am Spartacus” moments in support of Laurel, and their perspectives are prioritized over hers. For all that “Freeheld” makes you feel, its concluding bait-and-switch is disappointingly disingenuous, overshadowing the film’s prior successes.

Interested in a previously released film? Read our reviews of films already showing in your local theater.

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