Freeheld (2007 film)

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For the upcoming feature film adaptation, see Freeheld (2015 film).
Directed by Cynthia Wade
Produced by Vanessa Roth
Matthew Syrett
Cynthia Wade
Starring Laurel Hester
Stacie Andree
Music by Rob Schwimmer
Cinematography Cynthia Wade
Edited by David Teague
Release dates
Running time
40 minutes
Country United States
Language English

Freeheld is a 2007 documentary film directed by Cynthia Wade. It chronicles the story of Laurel Hester in her fight against the Ocean County, New Jersey Board of Chosen Freeholders to give her earned pension benefits to her partner, Stacie. On February 24, 2008, it won the Academy Award for Best Short Documentary. The documentary also won a Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2007.[1]

Freeheld has played in over 50 festivals Worldwide and has earned 14 festival awards.[2] The film had its US broadcast premiere in June 2008 on Cinemax. A film based on the documentary, starring Ellen Page and Julianne Moore, is currently in development.[3]


Laurel Hester has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, and expected to live only another year, she wishes to pass on her pension to her domestic partner of five years, Stacie Andree. Although New Jersey counties have the option to extend pension benefits to domestic partners, Ocean County Freeholders will not do this. In protest, the state's LGBT civil rights organization, Garden State Equality, organizes hundreds of people to speak out at each of the Freeholders' meetings. The crowds Garden State Equality organizes get bigger and more vociferous at each meeting.

Among those speaking out are Laurel's police colleagues and Ocean County residents, describing Laurel's 25 years of exemplary work for the police department, and petitioning the Freeholders to allow her to pass on her pension to Stacie. Laurel's first police partner, Dane Wells, speaks about her and compares the situation to separate drinking fountains and seats at the back of the bus. Freeholder Joseph Vicari says that although they are "anguished" by Laurel's case, they are unable to change things because of state legislature and moves for an adjournment. The members of the public present are unhappy with this decision and some begin to chant "It's in your power".

Outside the administration building, news reporter Ida Siegal explains the background to the case. In 2004 New Jersey passed the Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act which allows all gay and lesbian state employees to pass on their benefits, including the pension, to their domestic partners. According to Siegal, all New Jersey counties can choose whether or not to allow their employees to pass on benefits to their partners. Ocean County Freeholders have decided against this.

Don Bennett, a reporter for the Ocean County Observer says that every time he talked to the Freeholders, they had a different excuse for not moving forward. Margaret Bonafide of the Asbury Park Press says that while Freeholder John Bartlett had said that such a benefit would have had to have been negotiated in union contract, Freeholder John Kelly had said that giving pension benefits to domestic partners would violate the sanctity of marriage.

Laurel goes home to die and the final scene of the film shows her memorial service, attended by Stacie, Dane and her police colleagues. Nine months after her death, the New Jersey Supreme Court rules that same sex couples must have the same rights as heterosexual couples, forcing the state legislature to legalise civil unions in New Jersey.

People featured[edit]

  • Laurel Hester
  • Stacie Andree, Hester's domestic partner
  • Don Bennett, staff reporter for the Ocean County Observer
  • Margaret Bonafide, staff reporter for the Asbury Park Press
  • Dick Chinery, former New Jersey police chief
  • Dane Wells, Hester's first police partner
  • Steven Goldstein, Garden State Equality chair
  • Coleen Markey Tosh, LCSW, Hospice Social Worker

The Freeholders of Ocean County declined to be interviewed for the film.

Release and reception[edit]

Freeheld premiered at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, where it won a Special Jury Prize.[4] It was an official selection at many US and international film festivals, winning awards including the Boston Independent Festival Audience Award and the Audience Award at the Los Angeles Outfest LGBT Film Festival.[2] A the 80th Academy Awards in 2008, Freeheld won the Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject).[4] It was released theatrically at selected cinemas across the United States in 2007 and had its US broadcast premiere on Cinemax in June 2008.[2][5]

Film adaptation[edit]

In May 2010, it was announced that Endgame Entertainment was developing a drama based on the documentary. Ellen Page is set to play Stacie and Ron Nyswaner is writing the screenplay.[6] As of February 2014, Julianne Moore and Steve Carell were attached to the project with Peter Sollett as director.[7]


  1. ^ "Freeheld (2007)", The New York Times, retrieved 2009-08-17 
  2. ^ a b c "Freeheld: The Laurel Hester Story — Screenings". Official site. Retrieved 2009-08-19. 
  3. ^ "Julianne Moore, Zach Galifianakis to Star in Drama 'Freeheld'". 
  4. ^ a b Tehrani, Bijan (2008-02-24), "Freeheld Wins the Best Documentary Short Film Award", Cinema Without Borders, retrieved 2009-08-17 
  5. ^ King, Susan (2008-02-14), "'Freeheld' director takes up the fight", Los Angeles Times, retrieved 2009-08-19 
  6. ^ Ellen Page's (Onscreen) Lesbian Love Story
  7. ^ Julianne Moore, Zach Galifianakis to Star in Drama 'Freeheld'

External links[edit]