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October 9, 2015

In 2006, Laurel Hester died. It was the end of a long, hard, painful battle with metastatic lung cancer, like many others that have brought so much grief to so many families across the country. But in Hester’s case, there was something else: her family was Stacie Andree, and though their domestic partnership was recognized by the state of New Jersey, the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office where she’d worked as a police lieutenant for over twenty years would not allow her to assign her pension benefits to Andree the way she could have if she were married to a man.

The problem hinged on a decision by the county’s board of “Freeholders”, the local legislature. The state law recognizing domestic partnership extended spousal benefits to all state employees, but gave counties the option of following suit. And as one of the few GOP strongholds in the state, Ocean County was not inclined to go along unless forced. And Hester’s case was just the wedge issue to force them.

This story was already the subject of an 2007 Academy Award-winning short documentary, which inspired Philadelphia screenwriter Ron Nyswaner to adapt a longer narrative screenplay for Freeheld. While sticking largely to the facts of the story, Nyswaner’s script manages to give heft and contour to a key turning point on the road to marriage equality in the United States.

The most notable improvement is the ability to start at the beginning of Hester and Andree’s relationship, presenting it as so utterly normal. Hester (Julianne Moore) was a deeply closeted police detective. Andree (Ellen Page) was an auto mechanic. They meet playing volleyball, and start dating. Just like any heterosexual couple might.

In fact, the only notable difference is the way Hester feels she has to hide her relationship. Maybe that’s not a fair statement; it’s not clear from the adaptation, but the Ocean County police chief and prosecutor told Hester in no uncertain terms that she had to keep the fact of her sexuality hidden. But she snaps at Andree for answering the phone at her apartment, introduces her as a friend or roommate, and avoids any public interaction. It actually sounds eerily close to the way Page herself recently described her own closeted behavior; she takes on all the hurt she worries she once caused.

And then there’s the cancer, and Hester’s rejected request for pension benefits. The script does insert one sympathetic Freeholder (Josh Charles), but the board strives to maintain an outward unanimity which prevents him from voicing his sympathies. There’s also Hester’s partner, Dane Wells (Michael Shannon), who stands as a sole voice of support for her within the department, though in fact there were other officers who testified at Freeholder meetings on her behalf.

But the ball doesn’t really get rolling until gay-marriage activist Steven Goldstein (Steve Carrell) gets involved, along with a busload of protestors to pack Freeholder meetings with picket signs. This, despite Andree’s desire to focus more on Hester’s recovery — a long shot, realistically — and Hester’s insistence that she doesn’t want to be a gay-marriage activist herself, just equality and fairness for Andree.

Once Goldstein and Garden State Equality arrived, the momentum slowly builds, putting increasing pressure on the Freeholders. At the same time, Hester’s condition worsens, and time runs thin for the board to change their mind. And while the result isn’t exactly a surprise, even if you weren’t previously aware of the case, it’s still a story worth repeating.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.

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