In this historical moment, with the same sex marriage and gay rights fights almost entirely won, Freeheld finds something relative unique and valuable to do. It’s a look back to see how we got here, and to observe how different human beings find it within themselves to change and come on board.
Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore) is a decorated police officer in Ocean County, New Jersey in the early 2000s. Along with her trusted partner on the force, Dane Wells (Michael Shannon), Laurel’s work has won her acclaim and respect. But Ocean County is also a rather conservative place, so Laurel has a strict set of personal rules to hide the fact that she’s a lesbian from her acquaintances and colleagues. That includes long drives to meet a tight-knit group of gay women who play volleyball, go to welcoming bars, and help one another out with the mundanities of life like home remodeling.
At one of the volleyball games, Stacie Andree (Ellen Page) takes mercy on Laurel by giving the older woman an easy serve during a rough game. The two hit it off in the parking lot afterwards, and then make a date to a country bar. It’s a study in contrasts: Laurel is older, experienced and confident, but also tightly controlled and ferociously protective of her privacy. Stacie is young and working class and almost painfully shy, yet at the same time joyful and open in a way Laurel has forgotten how to be. Stacie’s struggles in Freeheld are a reminder of the cruelties of the closet: Human beings are social creatures, few of us possess Laurel’s internal resilience, and we rely on one another to build our emotional worlds. Page’s performance is mostly just serviceable, but she nails Stacie’s confusion and pain when Ocean County refuses to include her and Laurel in the same rhythms and supports it extends to its heterosexual couples.
That refusal comes a few years after Laurel and Stacie meet. The two women form a deep bond, move in together, and eventually get hitched with a domestic partnership. Then Laurel is diagnosed with lung cancer, and decides to leave her pension benefits to Stacie, as allowed under a New Jersey law. But due to crossed legal wires, it falls to the Ocean County’s legislature – the Board of Chosen Freeholders – to actually approve Laurel’s request. They refuse, which sets off a long political brawl between Laurel and the Freeholders that eventually garners national attention. The script by Ron Nyswaner is actually based on a 2007 documentary about Laurel and Stacie of the same title.
Moore’s acting craft is first rate here, as it is with everything she does. But as the film goes on it’s the secondary characters that really leave an impression. Dane has trouble with things at first: His reaction to discovering that Laurel is a lesbian is self-pitying. But as much as you flinch at his tone-deafness, you also flinch at the high-handed way Laurel responds to Dane’s failure. When she asks him to make sure her benefits go to Stacie, and Dane responds “I thought that was for married people?” he isn’t being dismissive or malicious. He’s genuinely confused by this sudden combination of two categories that he never thought to put together before.
But eventually Dane does put them together. He becomes one of Laurel’s fiercest advocates, and Shannon plays the shift with a gruff and subtle nuance. It’s touching to see the quiet partnership he develops with Stacie as Laurel’s condition worsens, as well as his combative banter with Steven Goldstein (Steve Carell), the larger-than-life gay activist who organizes protests on Laurel’s behalf.
There’s also Bryan Kelder (Josh Charles), the one Freeholder who very nearly takes a stand in Laurel’s favor during the first vote, before the other Freeholders pressure him. Later, when the protests get going, Dane calls Bryan out for his cowardice, and the Freeholder shoots back that Dane wasn’t able to convince any other member of the police force to publicly support Laurel. No one is lonelier than the person bearing the brunt of an injustice, but it’s also lonely being among the first of the privileged class to catch on that an injustice is occurring.
Yet even as he refuses to publicly stick his neck out, Bryan passes crucial information to Dane, and works the inside game with the other Freeholders. Perhaps the most striking conversation occurs between Bryan and another Freeholder (Tom McGowan) who opposes Laurel’s request on religious grounds. Just as Bryan reaches the point where he cannot face his wife and daughter if he fails to support Laurel any longer, so too the other man knows that he won’t be able to face his friends and family if he ever does support her.
Freeheld is firmly committed to Laurel’s cause all the way. But it’s also compassionate with those who take a while to join the fight, and even with those who never join at all. The film is a modest and elegant affair, ultimately a small story on a small stage in one small town. It contains a lot of the usual beats and climactic speeches, but Peter Sollett’s direction does not ask these moments to shoulder more weight than they can bear. Its best quality is its recognition that Laurel’s fight – and any fight for justice – is not made of heroes. It’s made up of normal, flawed human beings who each touch heroism briefly, momentarily, and it’s all those moments that add up to justice.