[Screen It]


(2015) (Julianne Moore, Ellen Page) (PG-13)

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Drama: A cancer stricken cop must contend with the county where she works not wanting to grant her pension to her same-sex domestic partner.
It's the early 2000s and Laurel Hester (JULIANNE MOORE) is a detective in Seaside Heights, New Jersey. Along with her cop partner Dane Wells (MICHAEL SHANNON), she works to arrest drug dealers and such, and is currently working on a related double homicide. But she leads a secret life in that she's a lesbian, something she can't disclose to Dane or any other cops for fear of that likely putting an end to any work promotions. Accordingly, she travels long distances to meet other women, and does just that at a women's volleyball practice where auto mechanic Stacie Andree (ELLEN PAGE) is instantly smitten with Laurel and vice-versa.

The two become lovers and eventually buy a house together, with Laurel still keeping that secret from everyone. That is, until she's stricken with stage four lung cancer and learns that the county she works for won't allow her pension, should she die, to go to Stacie who's now her legal domestic partner. Dane is outraged, but he doesn't get much support from any other cops, or those who sit on the county council such as Bill Johnson (TOM McGOWAN) and Pat Gerry (DENNIS BOUTSIKARIS) who've forced the council's lone supporter of Laurel's case, Bryan Kelder (JOSH CHARLES), to side with them.

Enter Steven Goldstein (STEVE CARELL), a gay Jewish activist who wants gay marriage legalized and sees that Laurel and Stacie's problem could work well for furthering his cause. As Laurel gets sicker from the disease and treatment, Steven, Dane and others race against time to change the minds of the council before it's too late.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
If you've paid any attention to the news of recent, you've certainly heard of Kim Davis, the county clerk of Rowan County, Kentucky who refused to issue marriage licenses for same-sex couples, defied a subsequent federal court order that she do so, and was subsequently jailed.

Her defense was that she was acting under God's authority. I can only imagine there are screenwriters everywhere scrambling to get this story into movie form, although it sounds more like the subject matter of a made-for-TV-movie than a theatrical release.

A decade earlier, a somewhat similar story played out in Ocean County, New Jersey. There, the local Board of Chosen Freeholders ruled that they would not extend pension benefits to the same-sex domestic partner of veteran cop Laurel Hester who had been diagnosed with stage four lung cancer and was not expected to live long. The tale of her and others' fight to overturn that ruling was the subject of the 2008 Academy Award winning Best Short Documentary, "Freeheld," and that now has been turned into a full-length movie of the same name.

Rather than appear on Lifetime or some similar cable channel as I imagine the Kim Davis story ultimately will, however, this one is getting the theatrical release treatment and arrives with some big name stars attached to it.

Unfortunately, and despite them and some decent performances and a story that obviously should be told, most of what plays out on the big screen has too much of a small screen feel to it. Yes, there are some exemplary made-for-TV movies from time to time, but this wouldn't be one of them on either sized screen.

The film -- directed by Peter Sollett from a script by Ron Nyswaner -- begins by showing us Hester (Julianne Moore) and her cop partner (Michael Shannon) conducting a drug bust. After they get the obligatory beer in the obligatory follow-up scene (where we see, not so subtly, that he's obviously interested in her), that's followed by her playing in some sort of all-women's volleyball league. One of the other players (Ellen Page) is instantly smitten, and it's then that we realize Laurel is a lesbian and travels great distances to meet other women, all to avoid anyone locally learning of her sexual preferences and thus likely having her upward career path in the force derailed. The two become an item and buy a house and get a dog (that mysteriously disappears from view after its token introduction) but Laurel's smoking catches up with her and she's diagnosed with cancer.

Adding insult to injury, she learns that the county where she's worked for two-plus decades won't allow her pension benefits to extend to her domestic partner, thanks to the closed-mindedness of its board members (including those played by Dennis Boutsikaris, Tom McGowan and Josh Charles, with the latter's character reluctantly pressured into going along with the rest for unanimity).

Enter Steven Goldstein (Steve Carell) a gay Jewish activist who wears his gayness on his sleeve (and then some, even saying his first name is spelled with a "V" as in "very gay") and wants gay marriage legalized. He sees that Laurel and Stacie's problem could work well for furthering his cause and thus we have scenes of him and his followers protesting at the board meetings and such. And this all transpires as Laurel gets sicker and sicker, meaning time is running out for her and her hopes that Stacie will get her pension benefits and thus be able to keep their house.

I'm sure the real life case was a gut-wrenching tale of tragedy, civil rights, and the moral and legal battle beneath it all. But there's just something about the film that feels off from the get-go. Yes, the emotional impact finally hits home in the closing scenes after everything is resolved and when we see shots of the real women during the end credits. Until then, however, the offering is mediocre at best, which is unfortunate.

You know how you can just sense and tell that some films are Oscar contenders while others try to be just that, but never reach that level? That's the case here. It certainly seems like it would be a slam-dunk Oscar bait offering, but that nearly always present, made-for-TV vibe dampens such hopes and then some.

So, good intentions, a terrific cast and an important real-life story are mostly squandered by a mediocre execution of telling the tale. "Freeheld" rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed October 1, 2015 / Posted October 9, 2015

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