Love is forged in small moments. Like ragged bits of bottles polished into sea glass, Freeheld‘s lead characters, Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore) and Stacie Andree (Ellen Page), are rugged and tough, tumbled unwittingly by societal pressures and personal illness into gems fighting for LGBTQ equality.
In one early scene in the film—which is based on the true story of Laurel and Stacie’s landmark legal battle—the couple walks on the beach. They find a piece of sea glass, joking about wether or not it is an item worth keeping. Later, after Laurel’s death from lung cancer, Stacie lovingly puts this gem from the sea into a box of remembrances.
Like waves lapping persistently against the shore, the film is a succession of small, understated moments. Images of water and the sea are trickled throughout while the power of persistence functions on various symbolic levels.
Though the word feminism is never used, the film drips with feminist undercurrents. As a detective, Laurel must fight to be valued on the police force and hopes to become the first woman lieutenant in New Jersey, while Stacie has to prove she can rotate tires better than a man to get a job as a mechanic.
At one point, Laurel references the white male privilege of her detective partner, Dane Wells. Though he’s an ally to the couple through the film, such privilege is shown to shape the political landscape as well as the law—the five “Freeholders” that make up the county’s governing body are an “old boys network” using their white and male privilege to block Laurel’s attempts to ensure her pension will go to her domestic partner, Stacie.
In addition to documenting how Laurel’s battle with cancer became a battle for marriage equality, the film shows the small daily micro-aggressions one must endure as queer person in a heteronormative society, such as when Laurel’s police colleagues take swipes at her same-sex relationship, or when a group of men attempt to rob the couple while they’re out together in public.
The film has not garnered rave reviews—in fact, it has been written off for having cardboard characters and by-the-numbers drama that “undermine its noble intentions.” I disagree. True, the film is not brimming with action scenes or pulsing with dramatic soundscapes—it builds slowly and ends rather quietly. It is, in fact, far more like life and death than most of the movies that try to capture such stories; life is often slow and undramatic, death is often unexpected and quiet. Freeheld is not a crashing wave of drama—it is, rather, characterized by ebb and flow and captures the change of tide towards justice for LGBTQ people.
Like feminism, which is often characterized as coming in waves, Freeheld depicts the slow build of a changing tide; right now, U.S. culture is experiencing such a change in the tide regarding LGBTQ justice. Women like Laurel and Stacie are part of the wellspring that made this wave possible; part of the multitudes of people trying to live their lives and love who they love, despite living in a culture that uses religion, government and the law to keep the tide turned against them. Freeheld may not shine like a diamond, but it certainly offers us a beautiful piece of history—one that has tumbled and turned lives made jagged by injustice into beautiful, unbreakable bits of sea glass.
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