Phil Caruso
October 02, 2015 at 02:03 PM EDT

Freeheld holds a full hand going in: a timely gay rights drama based on an Oscar-winning documentary (Cynthia Wade’s 2007 short of the same name), penned by an Oscar-nominated screenwriter (Philadelphia’s Ron Nyswaner), and stacked with a first-class cast (led by yet another Oscar darling, last year’s Best Actress, Julianne Moore). It’s a shame, then, that the film feels like so much less than the sum of its celebrated parts. Moore stars as Laurel Hester, a closeted New Jersey cop whose anachronistic Farrah Fawcett waves are the only soft thing about her; she’s tough because she has to be, and a standout in her male-dominated department. But when she falls in love with a much younger mechanic (Ellen Page) and then falls ill, the limits of domestic partnership—and her small town’s tolerance—are painfully exposed. Though Moore and Page both give heartfelt performances, the stolid script and visually flat movie-of-the-week style rarely rise to meet them. Nuance is especially hard to find among the blustering bad guys (homophobic cops, crude townies, clueless councilmen) and in Steve Carell’s camp portrayal of an activist who sees a golden media opportunity in Laurel’s case. (Michael Shannon, who plays her longtime partner on the job, is much stronger.) Still, for all its clumsiness, the story resonates—and the photos that run over the final credits are a poignant reminder of the real life, not just the political legacy, that Laurel left behind. B–

103 minutes
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