It’s love at first serve when Stacie Andree (Page) and Laurel Hester (Moore) meet at a volleyball game. Laurel is a decorated New Jersey cop who has stayed closeted, even from her partner Dane Wells (Michael Shannon) because, as she says, “In law-enforcement women don’t get important cases; gay women, never.” Stacie is a mechanic in Pennsylvania whose big dream is for a simple life with a house, a dog and a loving wife.
Stacie’s dream comes true when the couple buy a house, get a dog and settle down. Their quiet life is turned upside down when Laurel is diagnosed with terminal cancer.
“If anything happens I want my pension to go to Stacy,” Laurel says to Dane. “That’s the only way she can keep the house.”
“But that’s only for married people isn’t it?”
With Laurel’s cancer spreading and the town council’s refusal to recognize Laurel and Stacie’s domestic partnership as legal, a small group of supporters—including Wells and lawyer Steven Goldstein (Steve Carell)—fight for the couple’s right to secure Hester’s pension benefits.
“Freeheld” is set in 1999 but the story feels ripped from the headlines. It’s a story of cancer and a detective tale but mostly it’s a story about the fight for equality in the LGBT community. It can be a frustrating watch as the town council, the Freeholders (Kevin O’Rourke, Tom McGowan, Dennis Boutsikaris, Josh Charles), argue against bestowing Laurel’s pension for political and moral reasons, despite having a clear right to do so under the law. The usual old boy excuses prevail—So anyone can marry anyone and assign their benefits? It violates the sanctity of marriage!—until (SPOILER ALERT EVEN THOUGH IT’S ON THE HISTORIAL RECORD!) mounting pressure forces their hand.
Moore has the showier role but it is Page who keeps the story earthbound. The issue of gay rights is so huge, so monumental it is sometimes easy to forget that it’s not simply a movement, but a cause that affects real people. The looks that register on Page’s face during Laurel’s illness and the ensuing pension battle make it personal in the most effective and beautiful way. Her face takes the story beyond Goldstein’s rhetoric and political theatre—“It’s Stephen with a V for Very gay,” he says, “and when people disrespect my brothers and sisters I reign down terror on them.”—stripping it of everything except for love and concern.
“Freeheld” is a crowd pleaser—unless, of course, you’re a Kentucky county clerk—that dramatizes and humanizes a landmark case in the ongoing battle for gay rights.