Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 43 min.
Our content ratings (1-10); Violence 2; Language 2; Sex /Nudity 4.
Our star rating (1-5): 4.5
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
Love is patient; love is kind…It bears all things,
believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
1 Corinthians 13:4 & 7
Director Peter Sollet’s film starts out like a police thriller, changes soon into a romance, albeit a lesbian one, then a medical tale of fighting against cancer, and winds up as a social justice struggle to obtain equal rights. I went into this film not knowing any of the above—just that it starred Julianne Moore and Ellen Page, which was enough for me to want to see it.
Although critical reaction has been very mixed, I was deeply moved by the plight of the two women protagonists, and, when Steve Carell entered the picture as an aggressive gay rights activist, delighted by the light touch he brought to the serious struggle. Writer Ron Nyswaner’s script is apparently an expansion of Cynthia Wade’s 2007 film, which won an Academy Award for a documentary on a short subject. Ms. Moore plays veteran police detective Laurel Hester of New Jersey’s Ocean County. Highly decorated, she is in line for a lieutenancy. Her partner Dane Wells (Michael Shannon) would like to become more than her trusted colleague, but he is unaware of her long held secret concerning her gender preference. When she meets the younger Stacie Andree (Ellen Page), the two are smitten, even though they get off to a rocky start. Stacie is unaware that Laurel is a cop until during a date the latter wards off some would be robbers with the gun she always carries with her.
After registering their relationship the two buy a house at a discrete distance from police headquarters, the deed in Laurel’s name because she is the one with the funds. Stacie manages to secure a mechanics job after showing the owner in a tire changing contest that she is faster, despite her small size, than another mechanic. Shortly after they have settled into their home Dane shows up with a large plant as a house gift, receiving the shock of his life when he learns that his long-time partner is a lesbian. (However, he says later that he is more upset by her not trusting him enough to reveal her secret than he is about her gender preference.)
The social justice issue arises when Laurel learns that she has cancer, and that it will be terminal. Stacie tries to deny the inevitable, but Laurel, knowing better, petitions the Ocean County Freeholders Board to transfer her pension benefits to Stacie upon her death. For various reasons the Board members in a private meeting turn her request down, even though a state law does allow them to do so. Without these benefits Stacie will be sure to lose their house.
With great trepidation from Stacie, Laurel decides to make her request public at the next meeting of the Board of Freeholders. They again turn her down, but the issue will not go away because a reporter writes a story about Laurel and her plea. Enter Steven Goldstein (Steve Carell), both a rabbi and a gay rights activist who knows how to stir things up with his hand-held bull horn. And he is not alone, bringing a bus load of other activists who chant with him to the Board, “You have the power! You have the power!” Life becomes very hard for the members of the Board, who try to remain adamant in their refusal to grant Laurel’s request, one that would be routine if Stacie were a man.
Dane supports Laurel, though he is as dubious as Stacie is about the bold and brassy Goldstein. In one exchange he responds to Goldstein’s declaration, “This is an outrageous miscarriage of justice. Their next meeting we show up with 100 protesters,” with, “Radicals and strangers from New York aren’t going to convince these guys.” Goldstein answers, “I am not a radical. I am a middle-class, Jewish homosexual from New Jersey. How about you, sweetheart?” “I’m a straight, white, ex-Protestant, atheist cop. You okay with that, ‘sweetheart?’” The activist declares, “I am. That is very hot.”
The many scenes in which the Board members discuss Laurel’s request are very interesting. One of them for religious reasons rejects her case out of hand. Another wrestles with his conscience because he recognizes the justice of her case. Others are opposed at first just because society rejects the gay lifestyle. All are concerned about an upcoming election, and so remain determined to resist the claim lest they lose votes. If only that loud, brash guy with his megaphone would stop stirring up the crowds!
The story’s going national puts even more pressure on the Freeholders. Thus we see the importance in our modern society of agitators and media publicity in bringing about change. This is something that the Hebrew prophets would have readily understood, Isaiah shouting his condemnations of injustice of king and people as he strode naked through the streets of Jerusalem, knowing that he could not be ignored by using such a shocking act. And Jeremiah standing in the crowded doorway of the temple to denounce the unfaithfulness of the nation also knew how to get his message out to the people.
Also worthy of note are the scenes set at the police station where Dane risks his career by attempting to get his fellow cops to come out and publicly support the colleague they had once liked and admired. He tries to shame them by pointing out that hundreds of other locals have come to the hearings in support of Laurel, but none of them have. Their instilled-from-birth homophobia proves to be a major barrier, and also one of them harbors his own secret. How they come around, for the most part, might seem a bit too Capraesque for some, but it is still inspiring. (If only the soundtrack music had been subtler instead of telling us what to feel during some of the scenes!)
Given the prominence of gender equality in political debates and the news, this movie is very timely. People of faith will differ concerning the film’s acceptance of the gay lifestyle, but they should be able to ralley around the issue of the injustice that would leave Stacie homeless. There are far more Scriptures in support of the outsider and the despised than those few misunderstood Scripture passages opposed to homosexuality. If you appreciated Philadelphia, you should enjoy this flawed but still inspiring dramatized documentary celebrating two brave women and two brave men.
This film with a set of discussion questions will be in the Nov. 2015 issue of VP, available for purchase on this site.