Indiana Governor Mike Pence would hate this movie, which is all the more reason to see it.
Much like Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, the strength of Freeheld is to be found in its historical significance. Despite its weaknesses, the film brings to life a moment in recent American history where discrimination was embraced and supported from sea to shining sea.
Directed by Peter Sollett, Freeheld centers on a true story that occurred in New Jersey less than 15 years ago. Laurel Hester, a respected gay New Jersey police detective, was quietly living with her partner, Stacie Andree. Forced to stay in the closet to keep her personal relationship secret, Ms. Hester did not want to do anything that would interfere with her professional advancement.
In the process, Detective Hester is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, and she discovers that the laws in New Jersey will not allow her domestic partner to receive her pension. Ms. Andree worked as a mechanic, and this pension was the only way that she could pay the outstanding mortgage on the home they both loved.
While the movie becomes a bit preachy, both Julianne Moore and Ellen Page are superb playing the couple fighting for equality under the law. Ironically, Ms. Moore follows-up last year’s Oscar winning performance as the Alzheimer’s stricken mother in Still Alice with this interesting portrayal of a woman dying of cancer. Forgive my sarcasm, but I was left wondering what disease this great actress will have to confront on screen in 2016.
More to the point, Ellen Page gives a tremendous performance as Ms. Andree, a young gay woman simply seeking the guaranteed American right to life and happiness. While most of Ms. Page’s appearances in front of the camera are filled with angst, you are left applauding her courage given her public acknowledgment that she is a gay woman. How many male actors would dare make that admission?
I have been a big fan of Ms. Page for a long time, and it began with her knockout performances in Hard Candy (2005) and Juno (2007). She also was splendid in Inception (2010) and the overlooked The East (2013), and this is a 28-year old actress who deserves both praise and admiration on screen and off.
Additionally, Michael Shannon gives a convincing performance as the detective who has been Ms. Hester’s police partner for many years. In my recent review of 99 Homes, I commented on his great ability to play rancid characters, and here he does a splendid job as a kind-hearted detective who wants to see justice done for his old friend.
What both helps and hurts the film are the hearings before the local County Council in New Jersey where Ms. Hester seeks approval to have her pension awarded to Ms. Andree. The Council members, all men, lack the courage to do anything but offer their prayers to a dying woman, and you hate them for hiding behind God to mask their bigotry.
The ending sequence where police officers and the general public have to decide whether a dying gay woman has the same rights as a dying heterosexual man will bring tears to your eyes. Though it is not an exaggeration to say that Steve Carell’s performance as a gay activist comes dangerously close to robbing the film of its significance, my advice is to ignore his annoying performance and simply embrace the tragedy faced by two women who dare to love each other.
Regardless, this is a film that deserves to be seen particularly in light of the attention given to the Kentucky clerk who uses religion to discriminate against gay American citizens seeking to marry. I was raised by a mother who taught me to be cautious of anyone who wore “religion on their sleeves”, and I only can say that Mom would have tremendously enjoyed this film.