Copyright Lionsgate 2015
Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore), a 23-year veteran of the police force, learns that she has terminal cancer. And then she learns something even more devastating — that her registered domestic partner, Stacie Andree (Ellen Page) is not eligible for the pension benefits that she would be entitled to if they had been a heterosexual married couple.
It is hard to believe that was only ten years ago. But in 2006, marriage equality seemed very far in the future. And that was not Laurel Hester’s concern. As shown in the Oscar-winning documentary short, also called “Freeheld,” she did not want her fight for death benefits to be used to promote marriage equality. Hester was a very private person who did not even tell her detective partner (Michael Shannon) that she was gay. She just wanted what she believed she had earned, and she wanted the woman she loved to be able to stay in the home they created together.
The term “Freehold,” by the way, is unique to New Jersey, and it goes back to the state’s earliest history. New Jersey’s first constitution, written in 1776, declared a county representative must be worth “fifty pounds proclamation money, clear estate in the same and have resided in the county in which they claim a vote for twelve months immediately preceding the election.” “Clear estate” means owning a property outright, and is also called a “freehold,” so only those who owned land could vote or be elected to office. While that restriction no longer applies, the position usually called “representative,” “supervisor,” or “councilman” is referred to in New Jersey as “Freehold.” In the case of this movie, “freeheld” refers to the property shared by Hester and Andree and their love for each other as well.
There are really two stories here, both familiar to moviegoers, but not combined in this way. There is the story of the fight for justice against the barriers of bureaucracy, bigotry, and bullies. And there is the story of a reserved loner opening up to love. The combination is at times uneasy. The love story is the stronger part of the film, but gets less attention. Moore is superb as Hester, with her Farrah Fawcett hair wings, utter dedication to her job, and resolve built up into isolation after more than two decades of mostly good-natured but sexist and homophobic humor from her fellow cops. She crosses state lines to play in on a lesbian volleyball team in Pennsylvania so no one in New Jersey will see her. And then she meets Stacie, tiny, much younger, but confident in who she is and who she loves. The scene where Andree proves herself to the manager of a car repair shop is a highlight. And so is their date, where we see Hester’s conflicting feelings. She is very attracted to Andree, she cannot quite believe Andree is attracted to her, she wants love in her life, she does not want to be exposed or vulnerable. When the two of them walk away from the bar to talk quietly, they are approached by thugs, and Hester pulls out her gun and identifies herself as a police officer. It is, in a way, a supremely romantic gesture. Later, she introduces Andree as her “roommate” and barks at her for answering the phone. But when she gets sick, she understands quickly what her priorities need to be.
She remains clear, even after Steven Goldstein (Steve Carell), a flamboyant activist for gay rights, shows up. Hester reluctantly allows him to create some political theater to support her cause. There is a loophole in the law. Domestic partners of state employees are covered, but local Freeholders decide whether city and county-level employees will qualify. Hester’s Freeholders have already turned her down and she does not have much time.
As often happens in re-telling a recent true story, the movie trips over the proportions in trying to get the facts straight. The interactions between the various Freeholders, including Josh Charles as the most inclined to support Hester’s rights, are no more interesting than municipal-level politics usually are. But the deep love between Hester and Andree and their quiet insistence on simple justice give the story sincerity, sweetness, and conviction.
Parents should know that this film includes very sad scenes of a terminal cancer patient, and death, themes of LGBTQ rights including homophobic and bigoted characters, some sexual references and situations, some strong language, smoking, drinking, and some law enforcement-related violence.
Family discussion: Why did Laurel insist that she was not an advocate of marriage equality? Should she have told her partner the truth?
If you like this, try: the Oscar-winning documentary that inspired the film