'Freeheld' Review: An Important Film

The applause at the end of the screening of Freeheld was deserving. This is a true story about New Jersey Police Officer Laurel Hester's battle to secure pension benefits for her registered domestic partner, Stacie Andree, when Hester dies from cancer. Julianne Moore's lack of vanity steals your heart as Laurel Hester who early into the film is diagnosed with terminal cancer. When Moore allows herself to look almost grotesque, Freeheld is most moving. As her cancer progresses Moore's acting improves. Still I longed for a freshly scrubbed face in some shots rather than a well made-up, light makeup look. This is not Moore's fault. The makeup people and cinematographer chose in some scenes -- when she is close to her death -- to film her a bit like a Clinique ad. Still her acting remains seamless.

Hester is in love with car mechanic Stacie Andree (Ellen Page) yet the Ocean County, New Jersey Board of Chosen Freeholders denies Hester's pension benefits to go to the woman she loves. Page is touching as a caretaker for Moore and acts with a butch quality that is charming. As a mechanic, she beats a local dude in a tire rotating contest which secures her position in this male-dominated profession. Andree was consulted during all aspects of this film.

Director Peter Sollett moves the pace along nicely even though this story is well known and the outcome created history. Yawns are not part of this experience of viewing Freeheld though they could have been. The dialogue is crisp and oddly enough peppered with some good laughs largely attributed to Steve Carrell as Steven Goldstein, founder and then chair of Garden State Equality who leads a group to organize a protest against the unfair vote of the members of the Freeholders.

Michael Shannon as Dane Wells as Hester's partner on the force is particularly moving. His restrained acting only adds to the impact of his words and actions. Mugging is not in his repertoire though it easily could have been. Josh Charles as Bryon Kelder is his usual restrained yet powerful addition to the cast. Kelder is the first Freeholder to vote for Hester and Charles haunted portrayal of Kelder is another moving piece of the sad story about homophobia which becomes a triumph for all homosexuals. Luke Grimes plays Hester's closeted gay partner on the force. Grimes' leading the force into the Court for Hester's final moment to speak for equality is the most moving moment in the film. The police force peppered with a homophobic aura drops its prejudice and supports Hester when most needed. She is on oxygen, in a wheelchair and can barely speak.

Ron Nyswaner wrote this screenplay which tells Hester's story with dignity, truth and the occasional wit. Mylie Cyrus sang "Hands of Love" on the soundtrack.

Freeheld is based on Cynthia Wade's 2007 acclaimed documentary short film of the same name, but a film with this message needs to be seen by as large an audience as possible. This is why Freeheld is an important film. Same-sex marriage wasn't yet law. But this couple's last weeks together were spent battling for an appeal of the Freeholders' negative decision. Hester won her fight just before her death in 2006. The journey of two women through the so-called justice system and winning for the equality of gay rights makes seeing this film well worthwhile.

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