FREEDOM WRITERS (Richard LaGravenese, 2007)
In FREEDOM WRITERS, idealistic new teacher Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank) steps into Room 203 at Woodrow H. Wilson High School in Long Beach, California ready to shape young minds and turn around troubled lives. The bright daughter of a civil rights activist, Erin chose education over law and an embattled integrated school over a cushy suburban institution because she wanted to help at-risk kids before they were beyond help.
Based on a true story, FREEDOM WRITERS takes place in the aftermath of the Los Angeles riots stemming from the Rodney King case. Racial tension and gang violence is high, and most of Erin's students are caught in the mix.
Her first day on the job provides a wake up call to the challenges she will face in the classroom and from the administration. Fourteen-year-olds with rap sheets and reading levels far below their ages dominate Erin's freshman English class list. Department head Margaret Campbell (Imelda Staunton) scoffs at her optimism in spite of it all, making sure to remind her that she shouldn't wear her pearls around students for whom she's a glorified babysitter. The outlook doesn't improve when she meets the students, a surly bunch who divide themselves along racial lines and whose only unity is in detesting their cheerful teacher.
Erin tries to earn the students' respect by approaching them on their level, but the teens know she can't relate to their lives even if she uses a Tupac song to teach them about internal rhyme. She achieves a minor breakthrough when they play a game that lets the rival groups discover how much they have in common.
Real progress comes when the students are given diaries to write their own stories. Erin leaves it up to each one whether she is permitted to read their work. To her surprise, all of them choose to share. The stories of living with fear and violence touch her deeply, and she feels compelled to show the kids something outside their experiences. Whether it's buying them new books, something Margaret refuses to supply because she believes they'll destroy them, or paying to take them on a field trip, Erin invests her time and money to demonstrate her belief in their worth.
It would be easy to write off FREEDOM WRITERS as another inspirational teacher movie, not to mention one in which the white character saves the minorities, but to do so would be unfair. Writer-director Richard LaGravenese follows the template for such a story. The difference in FREEDOM WRITERS is how he shades the familiar elements.
Erin's devotion and effort--she takes on two part-time jobs to pay for books and the class trip--approaches sainthood, but it is not without a high price. Her husband Scott (Patrick Dempsey) grows frustrated that his wife is becoming a stranger to him. Unfair as it might sound to force her to choose between him and her students, LaGravenese sets the scene so that Scott's ultimatum seems perfectly reasonable. Erin wants to change the world. While she might gain admiration and a terrific sense of accomplishment, it takes a rare spouse who is willing to sacrifice and be left on the sidelines, especially when that wasn't expected.
The students' stories are told without excessive sentimentality. The audience is smart enough to observe that the kids have hard lives and don't need to have it jammed down their throats. If there's a weakness in FREEDOM WRITERS, it's in having too many students to get to know many of them well. Still, it's better to have characters we'd like to know more about than not have the slightest interest in. Eva (April Lee Hernandez), a gang murder witness pressured to lie to protect a fellow Latino, gets the lion's share of the attention. The film does a good job of explaining why lying to frame someone else is the more sensible decision.
I would have liked to have seen more about Marcus (Jason Finn). His mother kicked him out of the house for being in a gang, and he doesn't expect to reach his eighteenth birthday. There's something quite moving in how he talks about what The Diary of Anne Frank means to him and how Miep Gies, who hid Anne, is his hero. His shy request to escort the elderly Dutch woman, if they can raise the money to bring her to speak to them, is one of the film's high points.
Occasionally FREEDOM WRITERS overdoes it in depicting those who oppose Erin. Margaret and a junior honors teacher have their villainous mustache-twirling moments that aren't necessary. To Staunton's credit, she plays the part not as an overt racist but as someone who has seen failure for so long that it's easier for her to doubt that Erin's progress will have a lasting effect. Erin can come across as hopelessly optimistic, although I suppose without such an attitude, she would never take the big risks. The teacher's shoes fit well on Swank, who conveys the toughness and affection her character must have to weather the situation and make an impact.
In 1961 the Freedom Riders stood up for what they believed was unjust regarding civil rights in America. In honor of those people, Erin's students adopt the name Freedom Writers for their brave stance against the violence in their communities and the low standards expected of them. Similarly, FREEDOM WRITERS echoes its inspirational teacher cinematic predecessors with generous amounts of compassion.