Freeheld Review

by Crystal Zhao

Laurel Hester and Stacie Andree’s struggle to extend the rights of same-sex partners caught national attention in 2005, and more than a decade later, this narrative is still, if not more, relevant. In an age where members of the LGBTQ+ community are gaining increased visibility and the highest court in the land recognizes the legitimacy of a homosexual marriage, it is important to remember that there remain more barriers to break. Peter Sollet’s retelling of Hester and Andree’s love and resilience sought to do just that, and while the film did inspire tears at some points, it fell disappointingly short of its hype.

Laurel Hester was an active and respected veteran of a New Jersey police office when she met and subsequently fell in love with the much younger Stacie Andree. Tragically, they had shared only a few years of domestic partnership together when Hester was diagnosed with rapidly spreading lung cancer. As the couple prepared for her death, they realized that Andree wouldn’t be able to pay mortgage without her partner’s support. Any person in a heterosexual relationship that worked in the police force would have been able to pass on pension benefits to a spouse, but as it stood in Ocean County, this did not extend to domestic partners. After being rejected several times by the county freeholders, a weak but stirring video appeal from Hester’s hospital bed was shown at a meeting. Soon after, the county Republican leaders and freeholders jointly reversed their decision, marking an important step for same-sex couples in America.

With Julianne Moore and Ellen Page playing Hester and Andree, respectively, the magnetism and adoration between the couple was displayed in a moving and heartfelt manner. Their chemistry was unfortunately sidelined by lesser performances and screenwriting choices. Firstly, Steve Carell as a flamboyant civil rights lawyer was a garish stereotype who provided little of his intended comedic relief. I even felt a little sorry for poor Michael Shannon, who artfully portrayed Hester’s supportive but gruff police partner, taking on one of his few roles as a do-gooder, only to be relentlessly teased and made uncomfortable by Carell’s advances. Then there was the freeholders, who were made to be one large, one-dimensional, bigoted mass. They largely lacked nuance, logical argument, and any trace of human compassion up until late in the movie. My greatest problem with the movie, though, was that Moore and Page’s scenes in the second half of the film where Hester was deteriorating rapidly were downplayed so much. These were the moments that made me cry and provoked the most thought and emotion, but I only caught glimpses of their relationship between the office antics (white men being intolerant, a stereotype within itself), the county Republican leaders (intolerant and strangely merciless white men, again), and the lawyer activists (lots of logistical talk that I could have done without).

The film was not all it was chalked up to be, but no matter the parts that were regrettable or fell short, the potency of the true story did not allow itself to be masked. Having witnessed this bittersweet story and seen the increase of acceptance in recent years, I come away from this experience feeling optimistic. The LGBTQ+ community continues to face injustices of this degree, but as time marches on, social progress follows.