by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday October 2, 2015


While the debate over "Stonewall" rages, there's another movie about LGBT equality stalwarts -- a quieter and more powerful film -- that deserves our attention and will inspire our gratitude. "Freeheld," a based-on-true-events feature film, shares its title with a documentary about the same subject matter: A New Jersey policewoman who, upon being diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer, had to fight for the same rights to provide for her family that heterosexual married people take for granted.

As the marriage equality drama has unfolded in America over the last 20 years -- beginning with a court ruling in Hawaii and coming to completion last summer with the Supreme Court decision that put marriage equality into the reach of gay and lesbian families across the country -- heartbreaking stories about committed couples being unfairly punished by hostile laws have cropped up from time to time. These stories are not narrative outliers, but rather serve to summarize the fundamental issues at stake. These stories are stark reminders of why the fight for marriage equality was so important.

So too the story of Detective Laurel Hester and her life partner, Stacie Andree. Republican county officials (five "freeholders") turned down Hester's request to have her pension benefits go to Andree. The film makes it clear what their reasoning is when one of the freeholders declares that to honor Hester's request would be an assault on the "sanctity of marriage."

That argument, along with many others we heard repeatedly from both sides before the Supreme Court settled the matter, boil up again and again, but the film keeps its focus on Hester and Andree. Screenwriter Ron Nyswaner ("Philadelphia," "Soldier's Girl") has taken what the general public might already have known about the couple from seeing Cynthia Wade's Oscar-winning documentary, and fleshed the story out to create a moving drama about justice, loyalty, and love.

That doesn't mean every brick in the road is perfectly placed. The film stumbles a bit here and there, hitting a few notes that seem inauthentic not because they aren't realistic, but because they seem to belong to some other movie. The fact that Hester (Julianne Moore) is nervous about her colleagues finding out about her sexuality seems of a piece with the film's themes and mood; the way she whips out a gun when a trio of would-be gay-bashers accost her and Andree one evening doesn't, even though it's perfectly plausible. ("Are you okay?" Hester asks a visible shaken Andree, (Ellen Page), as she casually reholsters her sidearm.)

In other scenes, Hester works a murder case, is thrown from a moving vehicle, and uses her own history as a closeted lesbian to connect with a terrified young woman too afraid to speak out against a pair of criminals. Such theatrics illustrate Hester's effectiveness, fearlessness, and dedication, and are meant to prove to us just how cowardly, shallow, and self-serving the freeholders' actions are when they deny her request. They don't fit very well into the movie's overall flow and tone.

Once the movie settles into its core storyline, such distractions drop away and more relevant conflicts rise to the surface. When the two women buy a house together Hester attempts to gloss over their relationship, claiming at various times that Andree is her "sister" or her "roommate." When Hester's partner, Dane Wells (Michael Shannon), finds out about their relationship, he's furious -- both because he's long had a crush on Hester, but also because he feels she's not honored the implicit trust police officers need in order to work together.

Audience members of a certain age will have clear and painful memories of the dance Hester does, a two-step shuffle that has her wavering in and out of the closet. The really sad thing -- astonishing, too, from today's vantage -- is how recently all of this takes place. The movie doesn't unfold in the 1970s or '80s; Hester and Andree meet in 2002. It's just that Ocean County is an insular place, ruled over by white men like the five officials who could, and ought to, extend a more thoughtful and compassionate hand to Hester, not swat her away as she faces impending death.

But the prospect of her demise -- and her concern for Andree -- prompts Hester to do something she'd never otherwise have done. A painfully private person, as is Andree, Hester decides to allow the leader of a state-level GLTB equality organization to make her into their poster child.

Enter Steve Carrell, playing the part of the memorably pugnacious Steve Goldstein, the head of Garden State Equality. In Carrell's hands, Goldstein is more than a strategically obnoxious tactician given to jumping with both feet onto friend and foe alike. He's funny, driven, and almost blinded by his fiery passion to secure equal treatment under the law for gay and lesbian Americans. Carrell takes a film that could too easily have gotten stuck in tearful sermons and re-hashes of catch-phrases and well-worn arguments (and there's plenty of that in this movie) and injects a crucial dose of humor. He also presents a complex, flawed character that matches well with the rest of the film's major players, who are nuanced and imperfect.

This isn't true of the freeholders. Only one of them, Bryan Kelder (Josh Charles), seems to be conflicted about treating Hester so shabbily; the others rest easily on their Biblical convictions or their prejudices, and they are more or less (often more) given to us as cardboard villains, their qualities reduced to forms of cultural shorthand. The group's leader, Pat Gerry (Dennis Boutsikaris) is the sort who puts out an aura of affability, but he also reeks of insincerity. William Sadler's character, another freeholder, is a cipher who seems to spend most of the film holding his nose at the thought that he has to even think about gays. The most religious of the group -- a freeholder called Bill, and played by Tom McGowan -- must have been cast to remind viewers of a certain stripe of corpulent, Bible-quoting bigot; the actor seems to be channeling Rush Limbaugh, though the tiny cross pinned to his lapel also evokes Jerry Falwell.

For all their high-handed talk, these five officials have something to hide. When Dane discovers their dirty little secret, he's got a huge bargaining chip. It's only a pity he never gets to use it; what promises to be a mother of a back-room deal gives way to a deus ex machina resolution. As a plot point, this twist is fairly useless. As a reaffirmation of just what a pack of assholes these guys are, though, it's as effective as it's meant to be.

Hester's fellow cops scarcely come off any better. There are a few scenes set at police headquarters that feel staffed by cliche central: The pretty-boy homophobe, the quivering closet case, the gruff chief, the younger cop who speaks up in defense of Hester even though he looks half-afraid to do so. These scenes -- like the ones set at public meetings presided over by the freeholders, or the meetings among the five freeholders themselves -- amount to little more than forums for all those familiar old arguments, pro and con, to be trotted out and voiced all over again.

The film is at its best when it sticks to its thesis, which is about more than equality and equitable treatment under the law. Like most other LGBT movies designed for mainstream (which is to say, straight) consumption, "Freehold" takes pains to press the point that gays and lesbians are, above all else, human beings, and deserve to be treated as such. Like anyone else, two men or two women in a relationship talk past each other, fall back on each other, and do everything in their power to love, honor, and cherish each other. If love is love, then that's what we need to see.

That's what "Freeheld" gets right. Despite its inconsistencies and emotionally diagrammatic character arcs, the film does touch a chord, transcending the characters' sexualities and creating a universally relatable depiction of love and commitment. Moore and Page benefit immensely from the talents of their co-stars -- especially Shannon and Carell -- but they are the two actors who make the movie work.


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Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.