“Freeheld”: A Slice of Lesbian Domestic Partner History

Now showing in larger markets and coming soon to others, Peter Sollett‘s Freeheld is based on the real lives of workplace-closeted Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore), a New Jersey police lieutenant, and her domestic partner, Stacie Andree (Ellen Page). When Hester was diagnosed with terminal cancer, they fought (over 10 years ago) for Andree’s right to Hester’s pension benefits. Prevented from achieving this were the county officials known as the “Freeholders.”

This true story, by the way, was previously featured in Cynthia Wade‘s 2007 award-winning documentary of the same title.

Although generally lacking in rave reviews, Rex Reed, New York Observer, is wholeheartedly behind the new film. “It’s a poignant, relevant and beautifully made film that must not be missed by anyone with a heart and a social conscience.”

Representing the other side, Manohla Dargis, New York Times, says it’s “a television movie of the week gone uninterestingly wrong.”

So, which extreme is it? Probably neither.

As Reed and others have emphasized, this is the role that prompted actor Page to come publicly and poignantly out of her own real-life closet. But with all the recent changes in LGBT rights in this country, how relevant is Freeheld today? Two more opinions that differ widely:

Steve Pond, The Wrap: “…(T)he recent Supreme Court decision didn’t make the film feel like a musty period piece — instead, it seemed to add resonance and immediacy, turning a small victory in one community into the harbinger of greater things to come.”

Justin Chang, Variety: “…(A)t times plays like a period piece, populated by cardboard bigots, flamboyant gay crusaders and other hoary relics of a less enlightened past. That may be cause for celebration, but it’s hardly a compliment….(A)n oppressively worthy and self-satisfied inspirational vehicle that views its story primarily as a series of teachable moments, all but congratulating viewers for their moral and ideological superiority to roughly half the people onscreen.”

The politics involved, per Odie Henderson, rogerebert.com:

In 2005, when ‘Freeheld’ takes place, New Jersey law allowed people in domestic partnerships to pass on their pensions to their significant others. The law also allowed counties to opt out of such activities. It’s unclear whether the politicians object to Hester because of ‘the sanctity of marriage’ or some compulsive need to not only demand a unanimous vote, but to never reverse any prior vote’s outcome. This latter point is repeated enough times to muddy the waters, especially when one freeholder wants to side with Hester, but doesn’t so as not to break the streak of unanimous votes.

Although Hester isn’t actually an activist for the broader issue of gay marriage, her case is taken up by Steven Goldstein (Steve Carell), who is. His performance is widely perceived as “over-the-top” (both The Wrap and Variety and probably others) and “stereotypical gay comic relief” (Hollywood Reporter).

Other noteworthy supporting characters include Michael Shannon as Hester’s sympathetic cop partner and Josh Charles as the only dissenting Freeholder.

The trailer sets up the basics:

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