Story deserved a better movie

What It’s About

A well-intentioned but poorly executed film, “Freeheld” depicts the struggle for domestic partnership rights 10 years ago by telling the late Laurel Hester’s story.

Hester died at age 40 in 2006, a month after authorities overturned denying her plea for her pension benefits to go to her partner Stacie Andree.

The struggle for those rights are chronicled, but first the movie establishes the relationship between Laurel (Julianne Moore) and Stacie (Ellen Page).

Laurel is a respected police detective in Ocean County, N.J. when she falls in love with Stacie, a mechanic and 19 years her junior. They buy a house, get a dog, and settle into domestic bliss when Lauren, a smoker, gets a devastating diagnosis: stage 4 lung cancer.

So that Stacie doesn’t lose the house, the terminally ill Laurel seeks the same rights afforded to heterosexual police officers — that her pension is turned over to her spouse. But the five conservative Freeholders deny this.

The fight receives national attention when activist Steven Goldstein (Steve Carell) gets involved, and Laurel’s partner, detective Dane Wells (Michael Shannon), too, pushing for a different outcome.

The five white males ultimately see the error of their decision after pressure is applied — and Laurel, on her deathbed, pleads for mercy.

The case was chronicled in the 2007 documentary “Freeheld,” which won the Oscar for Best Short Documentary.


Oscar-winning Moore (“Still Alice”) and Page ( “Juno”) do what they can with the characters, but the script is sappy and cumbersome, more like a Lifetime TV movie.

The always interesting Michael Shannon (“99 Homes”) is convincing as a caring detective supportive of his co-worker, and Josh Charles expresses some humanity as a Freeholder wrestling with his conscience.

On the other hand, the rest of the supporting characters are one-note stereotypes.

What Works

Hester’s landmark case is worthy of attention. The advances in civil rights have been significant in the decade since her accomplishment, but it still deserves recognition.

What Doesn’t Work

It deserved a better movie. Director Peter Sollett (“Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist”) and screenwriter Ron Nyswaner (“Philadelphia”) needed to finesse a sensitive topic.

2 1/2 stars out of 4

  • Director: Peter Sollett
  • Starring: Julianne Moore, Ellen Page, Michael Shannon, Josh Charles
  • Rated: PG-13 for some thematic elements, language and sexuality.
  • Length: 1:43