“Freedom Writers” rings in a new year of (hopefully) great films
“Freedom Writers” is a mandatory experience for several groups: Those who aspire to be effective teachers, underachieving students who question the value of education, and anyone who needs convincing that teachers, especially new hires, are severely underpaid. For everyone else, this inspiring and surprisingly moving film is a welcome surprise during the normal early year movie doldrums.
The premise for “Freedom Writers,” –unconventional teacher reaches out to “misunderstood” students–is old school. That territory has been covered in a myriad of films including “Stand and Deliver,” “Dangerous Minds,” and the now 40 year old “To Sir, With Love” (which is the racially opposite twin of FW). More recently, slight twists on the education theme have surfaced in “Dead Poet’s Society,” “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” “Music of the Heart,” and “School of Rock.”
Where “Freedom Writers” sails above the norm is in the unflinching depiction of the racial tension of its setting and the authenticity of its characters. In a film that takes a lot of chances-it rarely misfires. No doubt it is aided significantly by the fact that it is based on the real life experience of teacher Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank) who as a 23 year old, accepted for her first assignment Woodrow Wilson High School in the combat zone of post-riot 1994 Long Beach, California.
A prim and proper idealist in polka dots and pearls, Swank is utterly convincing as a smart, square but clearly na?ve (and extremely Caucasian) rookie who initially struggles to reach, let alone teach her diverse class of Blacks, Mexicans, and Asians-and one white kid who “just wants to live.” Where to find common ground with students who pack heat, wear electronic ankle monitors, and have seen many of their friends and family fall victim to gang violence?
One student, Eva (impressively gritty April Lee Hernandez) is typical. Having witnessed her father arrested and taken to jail, she has grown up in a survival of the toughest environment that embraces violence and breeds hate.
Frustrated, but undeterred, Gruwell makes a breakthrough by connecting the trauma of her student’s lives with those of the Holocaust victims, culminating in a visit by Anne Frank’s protector Miep Gies. The storytelling is straightforward and avoids sentimental contrivance, assuming the intelligence of its audience and trusting the palpable credibility of all of its actors.
The flaws here are inconsequential-there’s the veteran teacher (Imelda Staunton) who is too easily demonized for her pessimistic traditional view, and the ignored husband (Patrick Dempsey) who splits– perhaps a little too conveniently-not, however, unbelievably.
But it’s the journal entries of the students and writer/director Richard LaGravenese’s skill at providing their words the proper vehicle to make “Freedom Writers” a richly rewarding film experience that rises to the top of its genre.
Rated PG-13 (For profanity including one F-word and violence)