"Freedom Writers" is proof-positive that a formulaic plot done to deathin this case, that of a teacher who inspires her troubled students to excel beyond their minimal expectationscan still work if enough effort and passion is put into it. Like 1995's "Dangerous Minds," 2005's "Coach Carter
" and 2006's "Take the Lead
" before it, the film hits many of the same story and character conventions and pushes several of the same emotional buttons. How it succeeds where those did not can be attributed to writer-director Richard LaGravenese (1998's "Living Out Loud
"), who brings a toughness to his script, a maturity to his filmmaking, and a keen intelligence to his message about the value of education and the potentialities open to any person, no matter their race, economic background, family life or surroundings, who sets his or her mind to it.
Hilary Swank adds another remarkable performance to her résumé as real-life English teacher Erin Gruwell, who arrives at Long Beach's faltering Woodrow Wilson High School soon after the Rodney King riots have turned the city into a hotbed for senseless crime and gang activity. Erin is filled with an overly sunny disposition and an endearing naiveté about her just-begun teaching career, but is knocked back to harsh reality when she finds a class of severely afflicted and misguided freshmen with few role models and a hopeless outlook for the future. When head administrator Margaret Campbell (Imelda Staunton) offers no help in changing these kids' lives, Erin takes a chance and decides to do it herself, working part-time jobs to pay for new reading materials and using offbeat methods to teach her students that there is a whole world of possibilities for them if only they find the courage to break the cycle of violence they have grown up to follow.
Were "Freedom Writers" not being released on the first weekend of 2007, Hilary Swank (2004's "Million Dollar Baby
") would be a deserved front-runner at this year's Oscars. Swank takes a would-be clichéd role and, with the help of a multidimensional screenplay that doesn't cut corners or offer simplistic characterizations, makes it so fresh that one might almost forget they have seen it all before. Based on "The Freedom Writers Diary," a compilation of the writings done by Erin Gruwell's students that was published in 1999, the film's destination is a foregone conclusion but its path in getting there is not. Ultimate predictability aside, writer-director Richard LaGravanese approaches the story with an unsentimental edge that avoids audience manipulation and saccharine melodrama. There is high emotional content, to be sure, but it is conveyed with a naturalistic touch that is most appreciated.
The high points of the picture relate to the learning process Erin Gruwell takes in teaching her students about respect, trust, the pleasures of reading and history, and the soul-bearing catharsis that can come with writing. One great scene, powerfully played by Hilary Swank, finds her confiscating a stereotypical caricature drawing that has been done of one of the African American students and using it as an example of how racism has endured throughout history and destroyed many lives in the process. An eye-opening field trip to a Holocaust museum and a classroom visit from Miep Gies (Pat Carroll), the woman popularized in "The Diary of Anne Frank" for hiding the tragic young historical figure from the Germans, are also unexpectedly touching, additionally shading the film with a resonant authenticity.
Hilary Swank is, indeed, the glue that holds together the story's foundation, and her Erin Gruwell is a determined, bright-eyed inspiration who, when it comes right down to it, must choose her students over her marriage. Taking a break from Dr. McDreamy on TV's "Grey's Anatomy," Patrick Dempsey (2002's "Sweet Home Alabama
") receives the somewhat thankless part of Erin's unhappy husband Scott. Dempsey hasn't a whole lot to do but make occasional comments to Erin when she is home, but the underwritten role is forgiven due to the superbly acted and written final scene between them. As their marriage crumbles around them, Erin and Scott do not turn to a shouting match, but instead have an honest and civilized discussion about the different things that each of them want.
As cynical administrator Margaret Campbell, Imelda Staunton's (2006's "Nanny McPhee
") turn is constantly at risk of becoming the go-to bad guy, but she invests just the right mixture of sternness and regret to keep it from becoming one-note. Finally, April Lee Hernandez is quite effective in a strong debut performance as Eva, one of Erin's most troubled pupils who begins to reevaluate whether staying true to her gang is as important as staying true to what she knows is right. Hernandez is believable throughout, but her abilities in expressing so much with her face without having to say anything is where she truly transcends.
"Freedom Writers" is unshowy and merely adequate from a technical standpointat times, the movie's aesthetics if not feel is on a made-for-television levelbut the tale it presents does not really call for those kinds of bells and whistles. The quality of the film undoubtedly lies in its storytelling sophistication, offering depth and note-perfect pitch to a well-worn plot. With the end comes an earned sense of hope for Erin Gruwell's class, but, accurately considering the uphill battle in front of them, no guarantees. "Freedom Writers" is easily one of the better entries in the "teacher-makes-good" genre in recent memory.