MOVIE REVIEW- Gang buster: Swank turns student savior<span class="Apple-converted-space"> </span>
If I have to watch one more inspirational film about an educator who went the extra mile to reach and teach his or her students I think I'll puke. I always think that; but the movies, if they're any good at all, usually find a spark of idealism deep within me, buried under a carefully cultivated shell of cynicism, and get to me.
Freedom Writers is no exception. Writer-director Richard LaGravenese (Living Out Loud and screenplays for The Fisher King, The Bridges of Madison County, etc.) knows exactly what he's doing and does it well. The result is too good for January, which is usually a time for studios to clear their shelves of crap while also expanding films that have received awards or nominations.
Hilary Swank follows in the high heels of Bette Davis, Michelle Pfeiffer, and dozens of others, as well as the more comfortable shoes of Robert Donat, Glenn Ford, Morgan Freeman et al, working a tough (class)room and getting those kids motivated.
The true story Freedom Writers is based on begins in 1994, when young Erin Gruwell (Swank) reports for work at Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach, which is no place for a new teacher to cut her teeth, except of course with a switchblade.
It's only two years since the Rodney King beating led to riots in L.A. and other parts of Southern California, and racial tensions still run high. Wilson was an academic paradise until "voluntary integration" led to ghetto kids, some on parole from juvie and mostly "disciplinary transfers," traveling 90 minutes each way on three buses to go there.
Now Wilson is a "blackboard jungle" and Ms. Gruwell has to teach freshman English to the worst of the incoming students, with little encouragement, let alone support, from department head Margaret Campbell (Imelda Staunton, a great actress who can't keep the character as written from seeming like the Wicked Witch of the West Coast) or fellow teacher Brian Beskin (John Benjamin Hickey), whose tenure lets him teach the honor students.
The class is divided into blacks, Latinos, Cambodians and one frightened white kid (Hunter Parrish of Weeds). At war in their neighborhoods, the races don't interact much at school. The first fight Erin has to break up is between two African Americans, Andre (Mario) and Jamal (Deance Wyatt).
Margaret won't let Erin take books from the storeroom to lend to her pupils, so Erin takes a second job to buy books herself. Later she takes a third job so she can pay for class field trips. This isn't good for her marriage to Scott (Patrick Dempsey), whose own ambition to become an architect is waning; and they grow apart. Even Erin's relationship with her father (Scott Glenn), a onetime activist whose convictions have faded, is initially strained.
There are two keys to Erin's success with the students. First she gets their attention by teaching them about the Holocaust, comparing their gangs to "the worst gang of all," the Nazis. The Diary of Anne Frank becomes their favorite book, which isn't hard when it's the only one some of them have read.
The other breakthrough comes when Erin gives each student a composition book in which to keep a daily journal, which won't be graded– or even read, unless they volunteer it. Getting them to commit their feelings to paper causes all sorts of good things to happen. We're never sure how or why, but we hear generous samples throughout the movie, especially from Eva (April Lee Hernandez), a tough Latina whose father was wrongfully imprisoned and who's scheduled to testify against an innocent black youth to protect her boyfriend in a murder trial.
In the midst of their personal crises and epiphanies, the class raises money to bring Miep Gies (Pat Carroll!), the woman who sheltered Anne Frank, over from Europe to talk to them.
After freshman and sophomore years, Room 203 has become a safe house for the class and their personal differences have vanished. They've become family for each other– at least inside the classroom. Then the school decrees Erin isn't qualified to teach juniors and seniors, so they'll have to part company. It would probably be good for the youngsters' development to lose their crutch and show they can still achieve something away from Ms. Gruwell's cult of personality, but this is a movie, so don't expect a little thing like the board of education to stand in the way of a happy ending.
Freedom Writers is a bit long and somewhat contrived but has numerous moments, mostly in the students' testimonies, that would draw tears from a stone.