When the documentary Freeheld won the Oscar for best documentary short in 2008, the powerful story of Laurel Hester and Stacie Andree—a lesbian couple from New Jersey who were forced to fight the state over control of Hester’s pension as she was dying from cancer—got the cinematic treatment and acclaim it deserved. At least that’s what I thought as I went to see Freeheld, the new Julianne Moore/Ellen Page feature version, which sets out to tell the story again. One hundred and three minutes later, I understood why director Peter Sollett had made the attempt: Freeheld is one of the most powerful pieces of agit-prop art I’ve ever seen, precisely because of its astonishing fidelity to the true story of Hester and Andree.
We first meet Julianne Moore’s Laurel Hester on a New Jersey boardwalk. She appears to be admiring her sweet Farrah Fawcett hairdo in a hand mirror while simultaneously tolerating the inane attentions of a couple of annoying dudes. In fact, she’s a police detective, using the compact to keep an eye on an undercover cop who’s scoring heroin across the street. The guys are cops, too—they’re just pretending to be loitering, though they’re genuinely annoying—and when their shenanigans make her take her eye off the drug deal, the undercover cop is in danger. Without thinking of her own safety, Hester gives chase and bravely saves her colleague while the other detectives are bumbling around. Once the bad guys are in cuffs, she lights a cigarette.
The scene tells us pretty much all we need to know about Hester: She’s a good cop, the lone woman on a force full of bros, and she smokes.
Well, there’s one more thing. In the next scene Hester is playing volleyball with a bunch of lesbians—without much skill or enthusiasm, even though she’s driven all the way to Pennsylvania for the game. (Hester is so petrified of being outed at work, she happily crosses state lines in search of community.) Stacie Andree (Page), a much younger, much butcher dyke, finds herself smitten by the big-haired visitor and asks for her number. Before long they’re out on a date—albeit one that’s cut short when Hester spots another cop in the gay bar where they’re two-stepping. They head outside and are getting along swimmingly, until their al fresco make-out sesh is interrupted by a gang of homophobic muggers—who are sent packing when Hester pulls out the gun that’s tucked into the waistband of her jeans.
If Freeheld is starting to sound like an action movie, rest assured that all this bad-guy-chasing and gun-pulling is just set-up. After the action comes romance, as Hester and Andree fall in love, register as domestic partners, and buy a home together. Andree renovates it, Hester decorates it, and once they get a dog, it’s lesbian heaven. Until tragedy strikes: No one smokes in the movies anymore unless they’re evil or destined for lung cancer, and soon enough, Hester is diagnosed with Stage 4 pulmonary carcinoma.
The final two-thirds of the film follow Hester’s attempt to persuade the freeholders of Ocean County—the local legislators—to allow her to assign her pension to Andree, a request the politicians have the power to permit or deny. The justice of the matter is clear: Hester has served the county with dedication for 23 years; if she and Andree were a heterosexual married couple, the surviving spouse would automatically receive the pension. But same-sex marriage wasn’t permitted in New Jersey in 2005, and even though Hester and Andree had gone through the rigmarole of registering their domestic partnership with the state, the freeholders could reject Hester’s request out of bigotry, tight-fistedness, or sheer cussedness.
Unlike the litigants of later queer court battles, who were groomed by lawyers or motivated by activism, Hester and Andree aren’t political. Hester has been so deeply closeted for so long, she can’t even imagine living openly. (The only gray clouds in the blue sky of their relationship come when Hester snaps at Andree for even thinking about answering her home phone or when she humiliates her lover by introducing her as her “roommate.”) Andree, meanwhile, can’t bring herself to fight for Hester’s pension, because doing so would mean admitting that her lover is going to die. Into the breach step Hester’s police partner Dane Wells (Michael Shannon, square of jaw and deep of voice), a straight, white conservative, and Steven Goldstein (Steve Carell), the very gay, very Jewish executive director of Garden State Equality, New Jersey’s LGBTQ advocacy group.
A couple of weeks ago, Kyle Buchanan wrote a stirring, impassioned post for Vulture, decrying what he calls a trend of “queer and trans films that are actually about straight people.” Buchanan observed that “by the end of Freeheld, Moore and Page have practically been relegated to background players so that the formerly reticent Shannon can rally the troops and deliver a final knockout monologue.” He’s not wrong about that—but what seems like a fault to Buchanan feels like a feature to me: What’s so powerful about Freeheld is its celebration of solidarity. Hester is deadly ill, and Andree is busy caring for her sick partner and fighting with insurance companies. Though they could easily have shrugged their shoulders and stood by while the widow lost the house she can’t afford alone, these friends and allies fight for the lesbian couple.
A viewing of the original documentary also suggests that, if anything, the feature film underplays the amount of support the women received from Wells and the citizens of Ocean County. Where the feature has Wells struggling to convince the rest of the squad to support their sick colleague, the nonfiction version shows cops lining up to lobby the freeholders much earlier in the process. And while Carell has been criticized for his over-the-top portrayal, judging from the documentary, the real Goldstein might be even more energetic.
Speaking of verisimilitude, Freeheld is one of the “realest” feature films I’ve seen in ages. It’s hard to disguise the movie-star cheekbones of Moore and Page, but in this film, they sure look like working-class New Jersey lesbians—all mom jeans, sweatshirts, and boots worn in the house. Both actresses deserve kudos for eschewing the actorly flourishes that tend to win awards. The movie even sounds real—from the ever-present blast of Hester’s hairdryer, at least until she loses her over-styled tresses, to the sound of hands accidentally touching the microphone when people address the freeholders’ meetings. The police interrogation rooms, the county meeting hall, and the couple’s home don’t look like movie sets, and when you’ve seen the documentary, it’s clear that the real locations, not to mention the couple’s wardrobes, have been carefully, and accurately, re-created by Sollett.
A feature film with top-shelf actresses, like Page and Oscar-winner Moore, will bring this sad, true story to millions more viewers than a documentary ever could. And this is a story that millions need to see, because it’s an essential reminder of how fragile our lives and happiness are. When Laurel Hester reluctantly agrees to Steven Goldstein’s request that she record a video about her situation, she refuses to talk about marriage. All she wants is “equality,” she insists. It was that simple act of resistance that made the end of the movie feel less anti-climactic than I had feared it might be. When the final title card rolls by, noting that in June 2015 the Supreme Court made same-sex marriage legal nationwide, it didn’t feel like the fight is over. We might be able to get wed from Maine to Mississippi, but we still don’t have equality.