We now live in an era where gays have the same rights to marriage that has been open to heterosexuals in America for longer than two hundred years. But, as little as just three months ago, this was not the case. It’s been a decade-spanning struggle, but thanks to the efforts of bold champions who tirelessly fought, we now all have this right. An adaptation of Cynthia Wade’s 2007 Oscar-winning documentary short of the same title, Freeheld is a memorial to Laurel Hester, a dying New Jersey police officer, and the uphill battle she faced in order for her to pass on her pension to her partner, Stacie Andree, while becoming a monumental figure, to whom, in part, the rights we now have are owed.
In a girl meets girl moment, after catching her eye at a women’s volleyball league, Stacie (Ellen Page) approaches Laurel (Julianne Moore) just before she is about to leave for a long drive home to Ocean County, New Jersey. “You drove all the way out here to play volleyball, and you don’t even like it?” Stacie pries. Exhaling smoke, Laurel confides that every now and then she should go out and meet someone. “They don’t have girls in Jersey?” Stacie asks. That is not the issue for Laurel, a closeted ambitious police officer, who believes that women do not get promoted, especially not gay ones, and she would like to become a Lieutenant.
Stacie gets Laurel’s number, and it isn’t long before she calls Laurel, who, in the passenger’s seat of a police cruiser, hides the fact that her suitor is a woman from her partner Officer Dane Wells (Michael Shannon), who obviously has a crush on her. The two go on a first date to a gay bar, where Laurel spots another closeted colleague, Officer Todd Belkin (Luke Grimes). Ducking out of the bar, Stacie is once again in pursuit of the flighty Laurel, and the two go to cuddle by the beach.
Flashing forward to a year later: Stacie and Laurel find a cute little bungalow in Ocean County, and are ready to move in together. Stacie cannot afford to pay half of the mortgage, so she offers to use her handiwork skill set to fix up their new home, and in a montage of them knocking in walls and eating take-out Asian food, the two share beautiful moments in their new home. As they settle in, Dane drops by under the pretence of bringing a house-warming gift. Laurel introduces her to him as her roommate, but seeing Stacie’s consternation, she pulls him aside to tell him that this woman is her romantic partner. Feeling betrayed by her reticence, Dane voices his frustrations, in an exquisitely landing monologue by Michael Shannon. He has told her everything about his personal life, even when it is painful to admit, because he feels that if their lives are in each other’s hands, as they are under fire, it’s important for her to know every step of where he’s at and she should be doing the same.
After getting a pain in her side checked out, Laurel finds out that she has stage four lung cancer. Knowing that she has very little time left, Laurel is determined to see her pension granted to Stacie, so that she can afford to remain in their home after her death, but isn’t trying to make waves: all she wants is treatment equal to that which would be afforded to her straight colleague’s spouses. Finding an unlikely ally in Dane, he is perhaps even more committed to. When the Board of Freeholders repeatedly deny the transfer of her pension to Stacie, Laurel and Stacie sometimes lose the stamina to persevere, as Laurel’s deterioration makes it difficult for them to focus on anything but her attempts to fight and survive. Meanwhile, Dane is posting forms at work for their fellow police officers to sign over their sick days for Laurel’s benefit, and trying to round up their support in attendance at the appeals during the Freeholders’ meetings.
The film chugs along well enough, until the appearance of Steven Goldstein (Steve Carell), the head of Garden State Equality, an organization whose name is plastered on the circumference of the yarmulke he wears, throws off the film’s intimate balance. In a Razzie-worthy performance, shrieking “You have the power; you have the power!” he and his army of picket-bearing protesters storm into the Freeholders’ meetings, demanding that they grant Laurel the opportunity to pass on her pension to Stacie. Though it is unfortunate, if understandable that Freehold chooses to depict the members of this board as one-note villains who are missing only little moustaches to twirl, it is perplexing that even the depictions of homosexuals, a community that this film is resolved to gratify, are hollow and thin. Sure, there are homosexuals who behave like Carell’s Goldstein, but his diva antics and assertions that “I am a Jewish homosexual, and this is scary to you!” are shallow, and feel as though this is entirely a straight actor aping “gay” mannerisms, without a real person underneath them. One also never gets the sense that this man actually cares about the couple he advocates for, and is merely seizing the opportunity to use their to prop up his own agenda in trying to claim marriage equality. People like this certainly come out of the woodwork in situations similar to Laurel and Stacie’s, but it is unfortunate that this is one of the only aspects of a secondary character, outside of its three leads, that doesn’t feel merely like an archetype.
Though it fumbles in the treatment of its secondary characters, Freeheld makes up for this failure in its wise observations about identity and honesty. In addition to Michael Shannon’s monologue about transparency, and all of the repeated references to Laurel’s initial penchant for hiding her sexuality from her workplace, in what is both the peak of its writing and in Moore’s performance, a scene where Laurel counsels an apprehended criminal is particularly elegant. Laurel shares memories of one secret (obvious to the audience that it is a reference to her orientation, but not to the suspect) that she kept as a teenager, the extreme toll that it took on her, and how she can only recommend that this young woman learns from her mistakes. It is a reflection that is invaluable for this suspect, who, unwilling to crack under the pressure of Laurel’s colleague’s questioning, makes the decision to volunteer information that will lead to an arrest, offering her peace of mind. The feeling of liberation will soon follow Laurel, once she has the courage to be open about who she truly is.
Ellen Page, for whom this film was a passion project, and was attached to for six years before filming commenced, brings a grounded, yet quiet, pluck to her portrayal of Stacie, and the starry-eyed wonder and adoration that she feels for the feisty blonde who she loves is palpably real. While the nature of how the barrier of her illness limits her presence in the film’s final act, Moore is a striking, haunting presence in her deterioration into a shadow of her former statuesque, earthly self.
Though some of its characterizations may not be perfect, Freeheld is a thoughtfully pensive contemplation on the importance of identity, and a rousingly effective tribute to an era that is finally in the past, celebrating that such inequalities of treatment will never have to be suffered, again The final title card in its epilogue references the June 26th SCOTUS ruling that granted marriage equality to ALL Americans, and it is heart-wrenching to see this fact proudly displayed on the big screen, for the first time, and Freeheld is a timely reminder of what it took to get here.