Freeheld (2015)

Freeheld (2015)
  • Time: 103 min
  • Genre: Biography | Drama | Romance
  • Director: Peter Sollett
  • Cast: Julianne Moore, Ellen Page, Michael Shannon, Steve Carell


New Jersey police lieutenant, Laurel Hester, and her registered domestic partner, Stacie Andree, both battle to secure Hester’s pension benefits when she is diagnosed with terminal cancer.


  • This country’s history has always displayed moments of progress, but only when it is long past due. With Gay Marriage officially being legalized everywhere in America this year, it would only be a matter of time before we got Oscar worthy performances about the LGBT community and their fight for equality. Ellen Page fought rigorously for Freeheld to be released, advocating much for the original story. With such a big theme and big names attached to the project, how could Freeheld disappoint?

    Freeheld is the true story of Laurel Hester, a detective who has served the State of New Jersey for over 20 years, is a closeted lesbian, who hides her true identity due to her fear of losing her respect in the force. She meets a younger woman, Stacie (Ellen Page), and the immediately begin a relationship between the two. Once Stacie becomes her registered domestic partner and she is soon diagnosed with terminal cancer, she battles to secure her pension benefits to leave to Stacie when she passes away.

    Although everyone does their job sufficiently, it is surprising to see Julianne Moore, Ellen Page, and Michael Shannon not give memorable performances over an important, controversial issue. After her Academy Award for Still Alice, Moore returns to a script that offers little to bring forth another Oscar worthy performance. The script puts Laurel out of mind and the issue into the spotlight. At the expense of more time for the actors, the second half of the film instead turns to a media circus, focusing more on Steven Goldstein, who plays a gay, Jewish activist hoping to overturn Moore’s ruling. Here, Steve Carell is merely a caricature of a gay Michael Scott from the Office. While it does provide some laughs in a serious movie, it makes the issue at hand a joke, rather than distract us from the more intense scenes.

    Ellen Page was more disappointing, as her role as Stacie was merely a timid, tongue-tied woman that lacked a voice. Whether standing up to Laurel for her respect or even people that harassed her for being part of the LGBT community, she instead bores us, and we wonder what made her interesting in the first place.

    Michael Shannon, who is Laurel’s partner on the force, shows that it is possible to still have shining moments with a below average script .seeing him trying to recruit more police officers to support their friend is noble and inspiring, all while seeing Todd Belkin’s (Luke Grimes) internal conflict with coming out with his sexuality and support Laurel. But once again, Ron Nyswaner’s script doesn’t come anywhere near close to 1993’s Philadelphia.

    The conflict Laurel has with hiding her relationship with Stacie wasn’t completely flushed out, with only one scene in which she yelled at Stacie. She does hide her relationship status in other scenes, alluding to Stacie as her “roommate,” or her “sister,” but Stacie never seemed completely troubled by the lack of public commitment Laurel had with her. The film certainly took a hit by being a little bit too short for the story it was telling. If the film was longer than 2 hours, than perhaps we would have seen more bits and even arguments between the couple.

    You will hear tears (there were some tears going down my face too, don’t worry) during some of the rougher scenes, but overall, Freeheld, while it will touch some differently that others, reframed too much from being too controversial and in your face. Freeheld wasted too much potential, giving us a movie that, while needed for viewers especially after the Supreme Court decision allowing gay marriage earlier this year, didn’t do the history justice.

  • Solid performances can’t quite save Freeheld, a fact-based drama that allows the political to overwhelm the personal. As with The Danish Girl, whose release capped off a year in which the transgender community entered the national discussion, Freeheld arrives on the heels of the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in favour of marriage equality. Progress is often made from the tales of ordinary people denied their basic human rights, but screenwriter Ron Nyswaner, who penned Philadelphia and the television movie Soldier’s Girl, wanders away from the richness of his core material to bang the drum, quite monotonously, for the film’s message.

    Based on Cynthia Wade’s 2007 Oscar-winning documentary of the same name, Freeheld centers on Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore), a 23-year veteran of the New Jersey police force. It is 2002, and she and her longtime partner, Dane Wells (Michael Shannon), have recently made the local headlines for a recent drug bust, an achievement which, coupled with her doggedness and dedication, is sure to assist in her ambition to become lieutenant. She is all too aware of the difficulties of being a woman in a male-dominated environment – “Things are handed to you,” she points out to Dane, “I have to fight for it.” – and revealing herself to be a gay woman would basically be career suicide.

    So when she meets Stacie (Ellen Page), 19 years her junior, Laurel’s guarded and controlling nature would seem detrimental to any sort of sustained relationship. Yet their love can’t be dismissed and, a year later, not only are they still together but have a dog, a house, and a registered domestic partnership. Laurel remains secretive about Stacie’s status in her life, introducing her as her friend to the realtor (“I’m her friend who’s also going to live with her,” Stacie cracks), her roommate to Dane, and noting her as family on the police union card. Laurel may never refer to Stacie as her wife, but wife is exactly what Stacie is, so when Laurel is diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer, Laurel immediately files a request for her pension benefits to be extended to Stacie. The freeholders, a panel of five Republican county legislators, reject her request and the remainder of the film depicts the couple’s sometimes reluctant struggle to convince the panel to reverse their ruling.

    Freeheld may have been a more resonant drama had it kept its perceived selling point, the fight for marriage equality, in the periphery. Once Steve Carell enters the picture as Steven Goldstein, the over-the-top founder of the a group named Garden State Equality who unabashedly uses Laurel’s case to further his own agenda for marriage equality, Freeheld treats Laurel as a symbol rather than a flesh and blood human being. All the political hoopla distracts and it doesn’t help that director Peter Sollett stages the freeholder meetings in such a remarkably bland manner. When Sollett cuts back and forth from the meeting to a weakened Laurel at home, it feels a particularly manipulative tug at the heartstrings. There is no need for such ploys, the audience is already in Laurel and Stacie’s corner.

    Page comprehends this, delivering a well-tempered portrayal. Moore is quietly powerful, stirring in the film’s final act but perhaps even more so in the moments after her diagnosis when Page’s Stacie insists that they’ll beat the cancer. Laurel knows better, but goes along with Stacie’s belief, knowing that hope is a comfort for her young wife.

    Equally excellent is Shannon, whose character has the one genuine arc in the film. Dane is hurt that Laurel has kept her sexual orientation from him – as partners, they’ve had a longer relationship than most marriages, and arguably a more emotionally intimate one, and it’s not the nature of the secret that shocks him but rather that she didn’t trust him with it. His transformation into an unlikely LGBT supporter is a fascinating one, and the smile that plays at the corners of Dane’s mouth as he manages to compel the detectives to donate their sick days to Laurel is a true highlight.

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  • How far we have come as a society in the common cause of equal rights for all Americans! Just over 150 years ago, it was still legal to own other human beings. 100 years ago women still didn’t have a right to vote guaranteed at the national level. About 50 years ago, black Americans were still being denied their right to vote and marriages between black and white partners were still illegal in some states. And, as recently as 2012, same-sex marriage had still not been legalized in half of the states in the country or at the federal level. Some people reading this may take issue with all these changes being on the same list, but the fact of the matter is many people had vehemently opposed them for economic and/or religious reasons, but today it would be hard to find anyone to argue against any of those developments, except that last one. Most people in the 21st century take those previous changes for granted as necessary to advance traditional American ideals of equality. That’s the main point made in the feature-length drama “Freeheld” (PG-13, 1:43). The film doesn’t mention many of the changes listed above, but it makes clear the filmmakers’ belief that the build-up to that last one centered on issues of equality and fairness.

    This film is based on the 2007 documentary of the same name which won the Academy Award for “Best Short Documentary” (a category now called “Best Documentary (Short Subject)”). Both movies tell the story of police detective Laurel Hester’s 2005-2006 struggle with her county’s legislators, which in New Jersey, are known as Freeholders. Hester, a 23-year veteran of the force, had been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and wanted the right to leave her pension to her domestic partner, Stacie Andree, just like Hester’s heterosexual colleagues had the right to do. New Jersey’s state laws at the time guaranteed pension benefits to domestic partners of state employees, but gave the individual counties jurisdiction over the issue for their employees. In Ocean County, New Jersey, in Laurel Hester’s case, various Freeholders used both economic and religious arguments against Detective Hester’s petition.

    In this dramatization, Oscar-winner Julianne Moore plays Laurel Hester and Oscar-nominee Ellen Page plays Stacie Andree. We see Laurel on the job with Dane Wells (Michael Shannon), Laurel’s long-time partner in fighting crime. When Laurel and Stacie meet at a volleyball game, there’s instant attraction, but Laurel, a control freak with a career cop’s demeanor, rather clumsily stumbles through the early stages of the relationship. That’s partly because she’s constantly on guard against her colleagues finding out that she’s a lesbian and partly because she just hasn’t dated very much. Stacie is much younger than Laurel, not as sure of herself and grows increasingly resentful of Laurel constantly finding ways to avoid publicly acknowledging the true nature of their relationship. Still, love blooms, the two women work through most of their issues and they buy a small house where they do some fixing up and some settling down. Then, soon after establishing a comfortable, happy life together, comes that cancer diagnosis.

    Laurel’s rapidly-advancing illness is as tough on both women as you’d probably imagine. In spite of her bleak prognosis, Laurel fights the cancer, but it seems to be mostly for the sake of Stacie, who is in denial about the seriousness of the situation. Laurel is very concerned about how all this is affecting Stacie emotionally, even as Laurel contends with her rising medical bills, her declining number of remaining sick days and, of course, how her partner will be able to keep up the house payments on an auto mechanic’s salary. With the advice and encouragement of the people closest to her (especially Dane), she begins fighting for Stacie’s right to inherit her pension benefits, even as her ability to carry on this fight is declining. Laurel’s predicament attracts state-wide and eventually nationwide media attention, as well as the attention of the New Jersey gay rights advocacy group Garden State Equality. The group’s leader, Steven Goldstein (Steve Carell), comes to Ocean County to help – and he brings plenty of supporters with him. There’s some conflict between Goldstein’s priorities and Laurel’s, but the main questions are whether these efforts will be able to get the Freeholders to reverse their initial denials of Laurel’s petition and whether Laurel will live long enough to see the final outcome.

    “Freeheld” vividly illustrates the issues involved in Hester’s case and gives us a fresh realization of how far the country has come on this issue in a relatively short period of time, but this is much more than just an “issue movie”. This film is primarily a love story. There’s better character development than we get from most modern movies. Moore and Page both give outstanding performances that range from joyful to heartbreaking and are as good as the best work of their careers. Shannon does his usual solid acting (although he’s been better) and Carell is both interesting and entertaining as a gay activist rabbi. The script gets a little lazy in playing out the dynamics between Goldstein’s organization and Hester’s very personal concerns, but overall, this is an important story, well-told. It has a point-of-view that may bother some moviegoers, but it does its job of telling a true story as it happened. It makes the point that everyone is entitled to their beliefs, but public policy should be unbiased and fair. We see that, like those who opposed the societal changes from my first paragraph, people who oppose changes like this are destined to be on the wrong side of history. Most of all, however, this is a story about love. “A-“

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