★ ★ ★
Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore) is one of the most respected investigators in the tough, boy’s club police department of Ocean County, NJ, in the late ’90s. Her passion for fairness and justice means that she is willing to sacrifice everything for her work, including the luxury of outing herself as a lesbian in her small, conservative town. She won’t even attend an event as innocuous as an all-female volleyball game unless it’s an hour away in Philadelphia — but when she goes, she immediately catches the eye of Stacie Andree (Ellen Page), a butch pixie nearly half her age. Hester is fearless when it comes to hunting down criminals, but this time it’s the obviously smitten Andree who chases Hester, screwing up her courage to ask for the older woman’s number after the game.
The romance between Laurel Hester and Stacie Andree is now a matter of public record, due to the legal battle that ensued after Hester was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in 2004. While putting her affairs in order, she designated Andree, her domestic partner, as the beneficiary of her pension benefits, which would let her continue to afford the mortgage payments on the home they had renovated together. Much to her shock — and despite the fact that New Jersey state law opened this option to domestic partners — the town council of “freeholders” used their veto option to turn down Hester’s request. Only after continual pressure from activists and the press did Ocean County’s board of freeholders reverse their policy in 2006, just weeks before Hester succumbed to cancer — by then, her fight started a precedent that led to same-sex couples gaining additional rights in New Jersey and beyond.
This heartbreaking and awe-inspiring story was previously brought to the screen by Cynthia Wade and Vanessa Roth in a 2007 Oscar-winning short-subject documentary also called Freeheld. Wade is credited as a producer on this movie, and the screenplay is by Ron Nyswaner, who also wrote the script for the Oscar-winning AIDS legal drama Philadelphia — a pedigreed group matched by the on-camera talent, which includes Michael Shannon as Hester’s partner on the force and Steve Carell in a delightful bonbon of a cameo as garrulous gay activist Steven Goldstein. Even though the scenes of Hester and Andree’s life together aren’t as nuanced as those presented in Moore’s other lesbian domestic drama, The Kids Are All Right, there isn’t a moment where either Moore or Page’s sincerity is ever in doubt.
But even their best efforts can’t make this melodrama less polemic, its characters less stereotyped, or its conclusion less self-congratulatory. In fact, anyone who’s watched any of the recent Christian-issue movies like God’s Not Dead or A Matter of Faith will recognize a similarly hectoring tone in this picture, flip-flopped this time to fit liberal concerns: Honest, everyday folks on the side of what they believe is right struggle against ignorant establishment cronies, with a well-earned vindication for our heroes and a dose of schadenfreude for the fuddy-duddy bullies in the end. (When one fat, pompous freeholder harrumphs, apropos of nothing, that giving Andree the pension benefits “violates the sanctity of marriage,” the only thing he’s missing is a Snidely Whiplash moustache to twirl. Did the filmmakers consider that making their villain a fully fleshed-out character, with his own complex motivations and convictions, would have made their heroes’ eventual triumph even sweeter? There’s no glory in winning against a cardboard cutout.)
The highest purpose of drama is to illuminate a shared humanity, to offer an entryway into the empathetic truth of another person’s experience, regardless of how that experience agrees with our own convictions. By turning the true story of a woman’s last-gasp efforts to make sure the person she loves will still be cared for after her death into a self-satisfied pep rally, the filmmakers are abdicating a responsibility to drama’s highest calling. Freeheld has noble aspirations and works as a good-hearted tearjerker, but for real insight into love, death, and justice, stick to the short documentary instead.