Hilary Swank as Erin Gruwell
Patrick Dempsey as Scott Casey
Scott Glenn as Steve Gruwell
Imelda Staunton as Margaret Campbell
April L. Hernandez as Eva
Mario as Andre
Kristin Herrera as Gloria
Jacklyn Ngan as Sindy
Sergio Montalvo as Alejandro
Jason Finn as Marcus
Deance Wyatt as Jamal
Vanetta Smith as Brandy
Gabriel Chavarria as Tito
Hunter Parrish as Ben
Antonio García as Miguel
Directed by Richard LaGravenese
Based on the inspirational true story of Erin Gruwell and Wilson High School’s Freedom Writers, what this movie lacks in originality for the genre, it more than makes up for in true heart and spirit.
Shortly after the Rodney King riots in L.A., new school teacher Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank) takes on the difficult freshman class of Wilson High School, made up of delinquents and underprivileged kids that the system has given up on. The ever-optimistic young teacher comes up with her own curriculum to try to get the kids to learn more about themselves and the world around them, having them document their lives in journals, while butting heads with fellow teachers and the school principal about her techniques.
It’s nice to start the year with something that has its heart in the right place, that tries to “edutain” young minds with a true story of underprivileged inner city kids overcoming the odds and the system trying to keep them down with the help of an unconventional young teacher.
Sadly, it’s way too easy to be cynical about a movie that follows the “teachers can make a difference” formula we’ve seen so many times, especially when the first twenty minutes comes across like a remake of the Michelle Pfeiffer vehicle “Dangerous Minds.” Once it gets past that, “Freedom Writers” quickly finds its own identity as a meaningful addition to the scholastic drama genre, partially due to the approach taken by director Richard LaGravenese in making it as much about the kids as it is about Hilary Swank’s Pollyannaish Erin Gruwell.
Gruwell is a white woman from a well-to-do background who unwittingly takes the job not knowing that the school has already given up on her students. Undaunted, she’s determined to make a difference in their lives and get them to learn. The film is rich with subplots involving the kids to give the viewer a clearer picture of what Gruwell has to face, and it doesn’t take long for the movie to deal with the race issue of how a white teacher is able to relate to a class of mainly black, Latino and Asian kids, split up along racial lines like a tamer version of “Oz.” (Of course, they make sure to include the single token white kid, played by Ben Parrish, who only seems to be in the class for diversity.)
Realizing that the school’s normal curriculum won’t get through to these kids, Gruwell modifies her lesson plan, teaching them about the Holocaust and how racial separatism was taken to a disastrous extreme. She also urges the kids to keep journals of their day-to-day lives, something that’s so successful that she assigns them to read “The Diary of Anne Frank,” even taking a second job in order to buy new copies of the book for the class. Word starts getting around about Gruwell’s techniques and though she’s able to get the students excited about something, her fellow teachers and principal don’t share their enthusiasm. When Erin needs to get approval for a class field trip to the Holocaust Museum, she winds up having to go over their heads, which causes even more friction.
At times, Swank’s chronically-smiling Gruwell seems way too nice to be credible as someone who could go into this situation and gain credibility among the kids, but it’s a great role for Swank, because it takes her away from the tough, almost manly, roles she’s been drawn to since “Boys Don’t Cry.” She does a really good job selling the character and winning the audience over, but even more amazing is the film’s array of talented young actors and newcomers, particularly April L. Hernandez as the gangbanging Latina Eva. It’s such a strong and effective performance that you have to wonder if she was able to bring something to the character from her own background. The same can be said about Jason Finn, who actually did bring his own background to an older boy living on the streets after being thrown out of the house by his mother. Both of their performances are extremely powerful and emotional, maybe because they seem real compared to the screen debut of R ‘n’ B singer Mario as Andre, the class clown who has to contend with his own deteriorating family.
“Grey’s Anatomy” star Patrick Dempsey winds up with the unenviable Adrian Grenier part from “Devil Wears Prada,” being the unsupportive husband at home who’s mostly unlikable and expendable to the story. Though it adds a bit of crisis to Erin’s focus on helping her kids, the scenes between the two actors seem forced, so they’re the film’s weakest moments. On the other hand, it’s nice seeing “Vera Drake” star (and Swank’s 2005 Oscar nemesis) Imelda Staunton as Gruwell’s harshest critic, a teacher named Margaret Vail who’s threatened by the changes the younger teacher is trying to bring to the school. Veteran Scott Glenn also has a small part as Erin’s father, who doesn’t understand her drive to help the kids, but really, the film is about Erin and the kids, and the movie would have been just as good or better if we didn’t spend as much time with Erin’s life away from school.
LaGravenese does a commendable job with the material, using a healthy heaping of early ’90s hip-hop to set the tone and mood, and wisely passing on Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” to avoid even more “Dangerous Minds” comparisons. At times, it’s a bit obvious that the movie is from the viewpoint of a white man, such as the corny scene where Erin’s students dance in class before she joins them ala Antonio Banderas in “Take the Lead.” Apparently, this is a regular occurrence in inner city high schools, but it’s also unnecessary filler that seems almost mandatory to the genre. Since the movie already feels a bit long, it’s the kind of scene that could have easily been excised without losing anything.
The Bottom Line:
As good or better than MTV Films’ 2005 offering “Coach Carter,” this scholastic drama is sometimes a bit formulaic, corny and even manipulative at times, but it’s the kind of inspirational story that deserves to be told and heard, because it effectively touches the heart and moves the spirit. One would have to be pretty cold or tough not to shed a single tear while hearing some of the heartbreaking true stories of these kids, as relayed by the film’s talented young cast.