“Their story. Their words. Their future.
Two-time Oscar®-winner Hilary Swank stars in this gripping story of inner-city kids raised on drive-by shootings and hard-core attitude – and the teacher who gives them the one thing they need most: a voice of their own. Dropped into the free-fire zone of a school torn by violence and racial tension, teacher Erin Gruwell battles an uncaring system in a fight to make the classroom matter in her students’ lives. Now, telling their own stories, and hearing the stories of others, a group of supposedly “unteachable” teens will discover the power of tolerance, reclaim their shattered lives and change the world. With electrifying performances from its all-star cast, including Golden Globe® winner Patrick Dempsey (Grey’s Anatomy) and recording star Mario, ‘Freedom Writers’ is based on the acclaimed best-seller, The Freedom Writers Diary.”
“Freedom Writers” is rated PG-13 for violent content, some thematic material and language.
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.
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