By Megan Smith
Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore) is tough as nails. A 23-year veteran detective of New Jersey’s Ocean County Police Department, she stops at nothing to rid the streets of murderers and drug dealers. But when personal tragedy strikes, will the city Hester has dedicated her life to protect and stand behind her?
Based on a true story, director Peter Sollett’s Freeheld first introduces us to Hester in 2002. A lesbian, Hester is not out to her co-workers—including to her partner on the force, Dane Wells (Michael Shannon). In fact, she’s so concerned about being exposed that she even crosses state lines to participate in a women’s volleyball league in an attempt to meet a potential partner.
Luckily, it works. Hester catches the eye of fellow volleyball player Stacie Andree (Ellen Page), an auto mechanic several years her junior. The attraction between the pair is immediate, and we see Hester’s protective walls begin to crumble for Andree. About a year later, the couple has adopted a dog, purchased a fixer-upper first home, and registered with the state as domestic partners. It’s the buildup to happily-ever-after.
But a mysterious pain in Hester’s side changes the pair’s future forever. What she first thought was a pulled muscle is soon diagnosed as late-stage lung cancer. While Andree is determined that her partner will pull through, Hester takes a more realistic approach—making sure everything is in order so that Andree is taken care of once she’s gone.
Hester appeals to her county’s Board of Chosen Freeholders (or legislators) in order to sign her pension benefits over to Andree—a right already afforded to every heterosexual married member of the force. But the panel of conservative Republican freeholders—with the exception of one—is far from sympathetic, and lets prejudice cloud their decision. They swiftly deny Hester’s request and, consequently, launch her into activism.
Once Steve Goldstein (Steve Carell), founder of Garden State Equality (a New Jersey organization fighting for the legalization of gay marriage) and a self-described “big, loud, gay Jew,” gets wind of Hester’s story, he rallies groups of “Justice for Laurel” protesters, the national media get involved, and the freeholders start to feel the pressure. While Goldstein has other goals, Hester insists that she’s fighting for “equality, not marriage”—she simply wants the same rights as her heterosexual co-workers.
Through the entire fight, there’s never a moment where Andree leaves Hester’s side. Freeheld depicts a truly emotional and multi-dimensional lesbian relationship—a refreshing break from the low-budget, highly sexualized films that typically fall under the “lesbian cinema” category.
The film also presents an interesting commentary on social-justice movements and the role activists play in them. Although Goldstein undoubtedly has good intentions in getting involved with Hester’s case, it’s very apparent that his tactics are purposely over-the-top—or what he calls “political theater.” While his protesters (who are bussed in from outside of the county) hold signs and shout during a freeholders’ meeting, you can’t help but wonder whether their efforts are focused on their bigger agenda or the dying woman seated in the front row. The true hero comes in the form of Wells, Hester’s partner, who refuses to let the police department sit idly by while one of their own faces such injustice.
While many critics claim that Freeheld misses the mark and that the legalization of same-sex marriage has rendered its portrayed battle as irrelevant, I believe that to be an ignorant critique of a powerful film. For Houstonians, Freeheld couldn’t be more relevant. As we are forced to defend the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance in the November election, we are reminded just how much change happens at the local level. Watching Houston’s grassroots organizers come together to ensure that our city is free of discrimination parallels Hester’s battle nearly a decade ago. We may have marriage, but the movement is far from over. We have yet to achieve Hester’s goal—equality.