American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Like “The Walk," “Freeheld” is based on an Oscar-winning documentary. The 2007 film of the same name told the true story of terminally ill Laurel Hester, a veteran Ocean County, New Jersey police department detective who fought to leave her pension to her domestic partner Stacie Andree. I have not seen Cynthia Wade’s documentary short, but I’ll assume it is free of the stereotypical message-movie dramatic license and characterizations that ultimately sink its well-acted fictional re-enactment. It feels uncomfortable to criticize a film with such noble intentions, and it’s even more disheartening when you share that film’s beliefs and politics. But “Freeheld” stumbles over too many hurdles to recommend it. The film’s heart is in the right place, but its focus is not.
Screenwriter Ron Nyswaner (“Philadelphia”) commits the sins that aggravate me most about films like this. Rather than give us a richly drawn romantic couple, with whom an audience can identify because they too have been In love, he gives us stick figure stand-ins for the film’s endorsed issue. “Freeheld” then introduces another stand-in for the hearts and minds it wishes to change, and then spends way too much time with that person. The couple fighting for their rights is then pushed even further from our embrace by an endless series of scenes that take place in a political chamber. It’s the "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace” of message movies: we want action, but we get Senate hearings instead.
Freeholder hearings is more like it. The Ocean County freeholders stand in the way of what rightfully belongs to Hester and her partner. The film doesn’t mention their political affiliation, but you don’t need to be Albert Einstein to figure it out. In 2005, when “Freeheld” takes place, New Jersey law allowed people in domestic partnerships to pass on their pensions to their significant others. The law also allowed counties to opt out of such activities. It’s unclear whether the politicians object to Hester because of “the sanctity of marriage” or some compulsive need to not only demand a unanimous vote, but to never reverse any prior vote’s outcome. This latter point is repeated enough times to muddy the waters, especially when one freeholder wants to side with Hester, but doesn’t so as not to break the streak of unanimous votes.
Before we get to the villains, “Freeheld” gives us a little time to experience the relationship between Laurel (Julianne Moore) and the far younger Stacie (Ellen Page). These early scenes have a lot of unfulfilled promise. Laurel, who is closeted at work, leaves Ocean County to find a mate. She and Stacie hit it off, and there’s some amusing comedy in how Stacie discovers Laurel’s profession. There’s also a nice scene of triumphant one-upmanship at Stacie’s mechanic job interview; the man she bests in a tire-rotation challenge seems more irritated that a woman beat him than he is about her orientation.