‘Freeheld’ tells an important story, but doesn’t do that story justice

Julianne Moore and Ellen Page in 'Freeheld'
Julianne Moore and Ellen Page in ‘Freeheld’

In the United States, only New Jersey labels its county legislators as “freeholders” and this is a film about what the freeholders who ran Ocean County did to one of its long-time county employees.

Laurel Hester (Moore) had been a detective with the county police force for more than two decades before she was diagnosed with late stage cancer.  Laurel had met and fallen in love with Stacie Andree (Page) years earlier.  The two had registered with the state as domestic partners.  While the county’s negotiated contract with the police force did not call for domestic partners to be covered by any of their benefits programs, in 2004 the state legislature had enacted a domestic partnership act.  It mandated such benefits for state employees and allowed other employers to grant these benefits.

Freeheld tells the story of how Laurel, a very private woman, met and fell in love with Stacie.  How they came to live together and form their bond.  In the film it is Stacie who notices Laurel grimacing in pain and insists she seek medical help.  For Laurel, once she has been told she has Stage IV cancer in her lungs, she is on a mission to accomplish one thing.  Gain equality of treatment, so that her pension will go to Stacie.  This is the only way Stacie can stay in the house the two of them restored.

They are aided and abetted in this task by two very different men.  One of them is her partner, Detective Dane Wells (Shannon) a very straight, very conservative man who doesn’t care that his partner is a lesbian.  The other is Steven Goldstein (Carrell) a self-described “gay Jewish lawyer” who founded Garden State Equality, a group focused on equality for the LGBT community.

Steve Carell as Steven Goldstein in 'Freeheld'
Steve Carell as Steven Goldstein in ‘Freeheld’

The five county Freeholders consider and deny Laurel’s request in a private meeting.  Bryan Kelder (Charles) is the newest Freeholder and he wants to support the request, but is pressured by the others.  Once the request is denied, Steven enters the picture and ratchets up the heat on the Freeholders by bringing in protesters.  As Laurel’s condition worsens, time becomes their biggest enemy.  Can they convince the Freeholders to reverse a decision for the first time in well over a century?

The cast all give wonderful performances.  It is especially nice to see Skipp Sudduth, late of NBC’s Third Watch police procedural given a chance to show his talents on the big screen.  Moore and Page are amazing, bringing two real people to life, near mirror-images of the real Laurel Hastert and Stacie Andree in the 2007 short documentary film on which this film is based.

Sadly, the film itself has very uneven pacing.  The first two acts wander aimlessly, before the much better third act rescues what is left of the nearly two hour film.  The true story of Laurel Hastert and her grace under the enormous pressure of her dual struggles with a terminal illness and the intransigent stance of conservative politicians deserved a better telling.

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