Freeheld full movie review - "Freeheld" will hold the attention of Movie Fans who like true stories, terrific acting and a great romance.
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-"