The Supreme Court of the United States was celebrated stateside earlier this year after voting in favour of legalizing same-sex marriage, granting couples in every state the right to marry whomever they please, regardless of sexual orientation. A major milestone in the movement towards LGBT rights and equality.
In Freeheld, equality was also the subject of Laurel Hester’s plea to an all male jury of conservative Freeholders (a governing body of elected officials) in Ocean County, New Jersey in 2005. Laurel (Julianne Moore) is a celebrated and decorated detective, having served 23 years working for the Ocean County prosecutor’s office. Well liked and respected by her all-male counterparts, she earned her place in a male dominated industry, taking down some of the regions most dangerous drug lords. Only one thing could threaten her reputation and the career she’s worked so hard to build. Laurel is gay, a truth she hasn’t shared with any of her colleagues, least of which her faithful partner Officer Dane Wells (Michael Shannon).
Laurel joins a woman’s volleyball league in a nearby town where she meets Stacie Andree (Ellen Page), who is immediately taken with her. Despite their considerable age gap, Laurel agrees to go out with her and they quickly fall in love. A year later they’re living the life they had both dreamed of – a loving relationship, a house, a dog – until one day Laurel complains of a pulled muscle in her side. The pain turns out to be a symptom of advanced stage lung cancer and Laurel is given very little hope of survival.
Once she realizes that she may not beat her devastating diagnosis, she writes to the county Freeholders to request that her pension benefits be awarded to Stacie, in the event of her death. When her request is denied, Laurel embarks on a battle to overturn their decision, to ensure Stacie can afford to remain in the home they built together. When Steven Goldstein (Steve Carrell), a colourful and vocal gay rights activist, convinces Laurel that she’s fighting for something much bigger, the story captures the attention of international media, pressuring the Freeholders to act.
Based on Hester’s real life story, Freeheld gives us a timely glimpse into the struggles same-sex couples have faced in the United States until very recently. Michael Shannon is hard not to love in this film, playing a hard but loveable guy anybody would want in their corner. Josh Charles makes his second appearance at TIFF this year as Bryan Kelder, the only Freeholder who supports Laurel’s plea from the beginning, despite being bullied into voting otherwise. Moore and Page tackle their roles with tenderness, sensitivity and a chemistry that made this film an emotional ride from start to finish.
“I think one of the things that breeds intolerance is not having interaction, not having a friendship, or an acquaintance with someone who is unlike yourself. And I’m hoping that interacting with these characters, as portrayed by Julianne and Ellen, tells an unsympathetic audience that characters like these are not so much unlike yourself,” explained director Peter Sollett on the red carpet before the premiere.
I was crying so hard when I left the screening, a kind TIFF volunteer asked if I needed a hug. Don’t let that dissuade you. Freeheld is a touching story that honours one woman’s fight for equality, which will continue to inspire for generations to come.
Freeheld opens in theatres across North America this fall.
Originally published in The Province.