Freedom Writers (PG-13)
Hilary Swank plays a young teacher of dangerous minds who is asked to stand and deliver for her high school English class in early 1990s Long Beach in Freedom Writers, a movie based on a true-story book of the same name.
Erin Gruwell (Swank) is all big smile and pearls on her first day at work in a Long Beach high school. Given freshmen and sophomore English classes, Gruwell is determined to Make A Difference even though her wealthy father (Scott Glenn) believes she took a job beneath her and her husband (Patrick Dempsey) seems to think teaching will be a phase she gets over. Gruwell shows up on the first day all ready to mold young minds but finds that her students are more focused on the basics of survival. There’s Eva (April Lee Hernandez), whose father is in jail and who is beginning to be pushed to support local gang members. There’s Andre (Mario), whose brother is facing a possible life sentence in jail. There’s Sindy (Jacklyn Ngan), a refugee from Cambodia whose father beats on her. There’s Ben (Hunter Parrish), a white kid who ends up the only white kid in his English class and spends most of his time being terrified. Gruwell sees her students pull apart, clumping into groups based on race and neighborhood, and more or less refuse to learn. Unwilling to give up on them, she uses their separatism as a means of introducing them to the Holocaust and the harm that the “stick with your own kind” mentality can cause. Eventually, she gets them to keep their own journals to document their experiences.
The more she relates history and literature to their lives, the more she can reach the students and get them to think that perhaps they can change things. Perhaps the girls don’t have to drop out and get pregnant. Perhaps the boys don’t have to join gangs and end up in jail or dead before graduation.
This kind of revolution in her kids’ minds does not go unnoticed by her department head, Margaret Campbell (Imelda Staunton), a woman who sees this extra attention Gruwell bestows on her student as a reward they don’t deserve. Campbell fights Gruwell at every turn, giving us a window into the latent racism that keeps these kids from breaking out of the roles their life circumstances have assigned them.
To its credit, the movie does not portray Gruwell’s extreme dedication as something that comes easy or is without consequence. Because she gets no support from her department head, she must get second (and third) jobs to pay for the books and other supplies the kids need. All this time at the school and these extra jobs lead to a growing separation between Gruwell and her husband.
This bit of trouble, though, is really the only trouble we see for Gruwell. In circumstances full of potential failure and possibility for setback, Gruwell’s problems are rather tidily solved. Unlike The Pursuit of Happyness (another recent based-on-a-true-story movie about the difficulty of fighting one’s way out of poverty), Freedom Writer does not go any extra step to give us realism. We see several students face Violence, Gang Life, etc., each presented as though it is the subject of a very special episode of an overly sappy TV show—Welcome Back Kotter if it were made by the Lifetime Network.
The story is an interesting one and the accomplishments of Gruwell, as presented in the movie, are amazing. But this seems like a tale that would be better served as a magazine article, presented without an uplifting score and filtered through the lens of more context. In movie form, the importance of Gruwell’s actions gets lost in all the good feelings about it. C+
Rated PG-13 for violent content, some thematic material and language. Directed by Richard LaGravenese and written by LaGravenese from a book by Erin Gruwell and the Freedom Writers, Freedom Writers is about two hours long and is distributed by Paramount Pictures. It will open in wide release on Jan. 5.