Ellen Page and Julianne Moore make Freeheld more than just a true story about a dying lesbian detective, her mechanic girlfriend, and the legal battle that changed New Jersey. It’s a surprisingly tender love story.
Laurel Hester is a New Jersey police detective so closeted at work that she drives several towns over just to socialize with other lesbians. When her cop partner Dane arrives at her new home unexpectedly with a housewarming present, he sees her girlfriend Stacie tooling around with plants on the front lawn. Dane assumes Stacie is the gardener, but Hester corrects him. Hester tells him that Stacie is her “roommate.” Stacie rolls her eyes and huffs away.
Though Hester eventually does the right thing by Stacie — becoming one of the most visible advocates for LGBT equality in her state along the way — that moment cuts right to the heart of every queer person over a certain age who has been introduced as the “friend” or “roommate” at some point in their romantic lives. So many of us have.
I’ve been there. My spouse of 25 years and I have always been out, sometimes to our detriment, but my first girlfriend and I were closeted for two years. We were “roommates,” “friends,” even “sisters” on occasion, and we played it so well that we double dated (with boys) and shared a college dorm (beds pushed together at night, separated by day), an apartment (with a roommate), and briefly a room at a homeless shelter where the only person who guessed our truth was a 26-year-old bisexual sex worker with a broken jaw and life experience we could barely fathom. I was closeted on the job at the time as well. This was the late 1980s, but a 2014 Human Rights Campaign survey reported that over half of all LGBT people in the United States are still closeted at work today.
The “roommate” relationship game is brutal and heartbreaking, and when you’re ready to be out and the other person isn’t, hearing yourself described as the “roommate” cuts to the bone. Of course, with Hester and Stacie, this moment is both real life and cinematic history: The scene comes from the new film Freeheld, the true story of Laurel Hester (played by Julianne Moore), a woman who, in 2005, is dying of lung cancer and fighting to have her partner of five years, Stacie Andree (Ellen Page), inherit her pension benefits after Hester’s death. The Ocean County, New Jersey, Freeholders (akin to a city council) decline to offer pension benefits to registered domestic partners, arguing that it’s not in their power. With the help of Garden State Equality (New Jersey’s largest LGBT organization) and its founder Steven Goldstein (portrayed by Steve Carell), Hester—a 25-year veteran of the local police force—fights back. Though the battle will pave the way for marriage equality in the state, Hester throughout the film demands that it’s not about marriage. It’s about equal rights.
Moore, who won the best actress Oscar earlier this year for Still Alice, is magnificent and agonizing in the role, elevating a thoughtful film about complex queer women as she has numerous times in the past, most recently in The Kids Are All Right.
“She inarguably reaches a new height in her groundbreaking career,” says Freeheld director Peter Sollett. “To work with her on this true story was incredibly inspiring. Her dedication to getting to know the real-life subjects of our story and to depicting that with integrity set the standard for all of us.”
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