Freeheld (in theaters now) is based on the story of police officer Laurel Hester’s battle with the Ocean County, New Jersey Board of Chosen Freeholders to get her pension benefits transferred to her domestic partner, Stacie, after being diagnosed with terminal cancer.
The film is set in 2005. One thing you’re aware of right away is how very different our fight for LGBT equality was just 10 years ago. In 2005 only one state had marriage equality (Massachusetts) and dozens of others were writing laws to block the attempt at equality. Domestic partnerships and civil unions were bring written across the country to create some kind of pathway to equality for LGBT couples, but we were a long way away from not only nationwide equality, but also in terms of the acceptance of the American people.
The acting in Freeheld is top notch. It stars Julianne Moore as Hester and Ellen Page as Stacie. They have a great onscreen chemistry and you’re taken into their story as soon as you see them. Moore plays Hester’s police officer with a reserved caution of a woman who is closeted at a time when it was almost required to be so. Page, on the other hand, playing the very much younger Stacie, wants to be open and out about who she is and struggles to deal with the closet as she gets closer to Moore.
Eventually Moore’s character agrees to a domestic partnership. It’s an interesting scene to watch from 2015, as the county clerk stumbles to find the right forms for the couple to fill out. But even the domestic partnership doesn’t bring Moore’s character into the light. They buy a house together and continue to bump into each other’s political correctness. Then Moore’s character discovers she has terminal cancer.
Faced with little time to evolve, Moore’s character starts both chemo and the fight for equal treatment. She doesn’t want to be a voice for the community, she only wants Stacie to get her benefits, something not provided to domestic partners where she lives. As she opens up and spars with the council members of her county, word gets out and the big guns of organized power come to her aid.
The first half of the movie is slow. In fact, it feels a bit unfinished. The tone is quiet and there’s not enough action in the police sub plot to create involvement on the part of the audience, something desperately needed. It isn’t until Steve Carell’s character comes into play, more than halfway through the film, as the passionate activist to right the wrongs, that the film comes to life with any humor and action, a direct contrast to the quickly failing health of Moore’s character.
The second half is dedicated to the fight for equality, the right for Moore’s character to pass along her benefits to her partner.
I would have liked some backstory about Moore’s character, to define her life in the closet, as well as with Page’s character, to understand how she was so open at a time when it was often unsafe to do so. And as I said before, the first half of the film desperately needs a facelift, in tone and spirit. Moore’s acting is superb as always, but her character is so reserved that when placed against a quiet and soft focused background, it was hard to feel engaged, particularly when the beginning plays against a dangerous police sub plot that should at least be thrilling to watch. One scene where Moore’s character goes after someone in a moving car and is dragged a few feet looks like a training short on how not to do a stunt in a movie.
Another glaring fault is a scene late in the film that is a victory for Moore’s character but unfortunately feels completely out of place, as if it was shot to appear much earlier in the film (for reasons you’ll see when you watch it) and then was edited in later as an afterthought.
Michael Shannon plays Moore’s police partner in the film and is integral from start to finish. I liked his character but others have complained that the story was told too much through the eyes of the straight friend. I disagree, and find the point of the character, to bridge a gap between worlds as an ally, illustrates how valuable our allies have been to us getting the equality we deserve.
Freeheld is worth the viewing, despite the confusing tonal faults of the film. I remember when the actual story broke into the news ten years ago and galvanized millions as the lesbian couple fought for their rights at a time when everything seemed stacked against us. It’s so important that while we bask in the glow of the giant wave of equality that is sweeping the nation this year, that we remember that only ten years ago, things were very different. It’s important that we see how other battles were fought and won, because the battle for equality is indeed, far from over.
The film is based on the documentary of the same name.