Film Review – Freeheld
Freeheld (2015) is based on the true story of Laurel Hester and Stacie Andree, played by Julianne Moore and Ellen Page respectively. A documentary short of the same name in 2007 won the Academy Award. The film deals with a case of equality in Ocean County, New Jersey. Laurel is a detective and is diagnosed with lung cancer. She wants to pass on her pension benefits to her partner, Stacie, but this is disallowed by the Freeholders of Ocean County, five elected men who deal with county matters. At this point in time, gay men and women could be domestic partners, but not married. This difference was the basis of their turning down her pension request.
Freeheld does not simply deal with the challenge to the law in New Jersey. It fleshes out the people Laurel and Stacie are, such as before they met, how they met, and how they approached living their lives as partners, secretly. Being in the police force, Laurel kept her sexual preference a secret so as not to prevent her from getting cases, promotions, etc. It is only after she is diagnosed with cancer that she makes the fact that she is gay more public. Of course, once the pension issue hit the papers, everyone in town knew who Stacie and Laurel were.
This is one of those films that you don’t have to see to know the outcome. It is pretty obvious what was going to happen, and if you really were interested in the subject, you could seek out the documentary short. The reason you go to films like this is to see how the director Peter Sollett, screenwriter Ron Nyswaner, and the actors are able to convey the true story along with all of the emotions that come from such a devastating disease and injustice.
Central to the film’s success is Julianne Moore and Ellen Page’s depictions of Laurel and Stacie along with their relationship with each other. Yes, it is convincing and I do think they did justice to both women. There has to be some trepidation to take on real life characters as opposed to fictional ones. They both were careful enough with their portrayals, yet bold enough to do things that not all female actors would do.
Michael Shannon plays Laurel’s detective partner, Dane Wells. He is not aware of her sexual identity even though they have spent years together, side by side. I appreciated Shannon’s portrayal as a matter-of-fact guy who could have been completely against Laurel’s sexuality, but chose to be mad at her for not telling him earlier. He becomes a hero of Laurel’s cause, an unlikely one.
Setting Shannon’s Dane against Steve Carell’s Steven Goldstein is a stroke of casting genius. Steven Goldstein is a gay, Jewish lawyer who runs the Garden State Equality. Goldstein comes to help Laurel with her cause and makes it more of a state-wide to national issue. Every scene with Carrell is pretty great and the cause of much of the laughter in a serious, dramatic film.
I went into Freeheld already guessing the ending. I expected great acting and it delivered. What I was not expecting was the emotional response to the ending. I left the theatre with tears on my cheeks. What sealed it for me is the ending paired with the photos of the real Laurel and Stacie. It really is great how far this country has come with gay rights. Our kids will look back at these films and be flabbergasted that people even had to fight for these rights now that marriage equality is the law of the land. Freeheld is as much about a relationship as it is about a fight for equal rights.