In the fight for equality, sometimes it takes the most heartbreaking stories to move the needle. Such was the case for Laurel Hester, an unassuming police detective whose bravery sparked a crucial turning point for domestic-partner rights in her home state of New Jersey. In 2005 Hester was diagnosed with incurable lung cancer and fought to have her pension benefits left to her domestic partner, Stacie Andree. Same-sex marriage wasn’t yet law in the state, and her request was denied by a five-man board of county representatives known (ironically) as freeholders. But the couple spent Hester’s last weeks battling for an appeal, which they won just before her death in 2006.
Their extraordinary story is the focus of the movie Freeheld (due Oct. 2), starring Julianne Moore as Laurel and Ellen Page as Stacie. Written by Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia) and directed by Peter Sollet (Nick & Nora’s Infinite Playlist), the film is based on the transcendently moving Oscar-winning 2007 documentary short of the same title. Freeheld also boasts supporting turns from Steve Carell as a New Jersey gay-rights activist, Michael Shannon as Laurel’s straight-laced cop partner, and Josh Charles as one of the freeholders. The film has all the ingredients—stellar cast, social consciousness, huge emotional pull—to place it right in the conversation for next year’s Oscars.
“I remember just seeing the trailer for the documentary and I was instantly brought to tears,” says Page, who’s also a producer. “Tremendous love stories between women have been made, of course. Some of them are my favorite movies. But to have a love story that brings up the civil rights issue, in relation to women—that we haven’t seen enough in the forefront.”
Page, 28, also acknowledges the happy coincidence that the project went into production months after she came out in 2014. “It got to the point where it didn’t matter what I was doing in my life, there was always this cloud,” she says. “And to be shooting the movie so soon after coming out was some of the most joy I’ve ever felt on a film set, which is a tricky thing to say because we’re telling a story that’s incredibly tragic. But the feeling of being out and playing someone who’s gay, and someone whose courage has allowed me to live my life, that feels amazing. People like Laurel and Stacie are the reason I feel so happy in my life now.”