You sometimes have to wonder how many times audiences will pay to see yet another cop-buddy movie, or another losing-sports-team-pulls-together-at-the-last-minute flick, or -- and this serves as today's lesson -- another inspirational-teacher-makes-a-difference film?
Well, here's some surprising news: Freedom Writers stands above most of the other titles that have come and gone in recent years (though it's doubtful that anything will ever top the mighty Blackboard Jungle).
This based-on-fact story concerns Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank) who, back in the early 1990s, was a bright-eyed and excitable teacher on her first assignment -- sent to stand in front of a freshman English class full of mostly black and Latino at-risk kids at a Long Beach high school that had recently been integrated.
She has lots of marvelous ideas on how to impact these kids (who don't intend to give her the time of day), but is told by her superior (Imelda Staunton) that the real purpose of her job isn't to teach them but to discipline them.
So there are two strikes against Gruwell, who Swank injects with close to an overdose of perkiness. Her students pretty much ignore her, and management is distraught that their once proud "A-list school" has been ruined since "they" (the black and Latino kids) came here. This turns into the administration taking a dislike toward Gruwell.
At least things are going well at home, where her husband (Patrick Dempsey) stands by her side in support, even when her dad (Scott Glenn) keeps telling her she can easily find a better career.
Most of the film takes place in the classroom, where Gruwell (Swank's big smile shining away) tries to figure out what's going on in her kids' heads -- from their practice of tribalism and separation of gangs to their ideas on respect -- always looking for a way to get inside those heads. But when she sees a blatant example of intolerance going on in the classroom, she decides a different approach is needed.
Her demeanor changes; the smile is gone. "You think you know all about gangs?" she says to them. "This gang would make you look like amateurs."
So begins her explanation of how Hitler and his Nazis attempted to wipe out the Jews of Europe in the Holocaust. Classroom arguments ensue. Things go wrong and threaten to get worse, until one curious student says to her,
"What's the Holocaust?"
It's the first moment in the film where she is literally silenced. When almost every other member of the class has the same question, she's floored.
It's from here that the story really picks up. Gruwell goes on a crusade to bring her charges up to speed, to make them understand the concept of tolerance, that just because they're in different gangs, they're not very different from one another.
Based on journals kept by the kids who were actually taught by Gruwell, the film becomes a study of how one person swims against the tide -- how she strives to be heard and how she fights a bureaucratic system that's not interested in change.
The kids playing the students, most of whom have never acted before, all come across as natural and very real. Swank shows an entirely different performance side that's miles away from her recent portrayals in The Black Dahlia and Million Dollar Baby. The only part that's hard to accept is the endless enthusiasm she infuses Gruwell with, even when problems arise at home. The only other missteps involve the caricature-like evil edge presented by Staunton as Gruwell's boss and by John Benjamin Hickey as another teacher who's angry at Gruwell's troublemakers.
When Gruwell gets her students to read The Diary of Anne Frank, believing that a kid in a war zone who writes her own diary would appeal to them, Richard LaGravanese's script shoots into areas that eventually become engrossing and sobering. When she brings Holocaust survivors into the mix, it's time to reach for the tissues.
There's nothing sappy or sentimental about any of this, and the filmmakers are not hitting viewers over the head with messages of how important it all is. A couple of scenes about kids changing for the better could have been done away with, but their inclusion does no harm. This is that rare film that's going to have a strong and memorable effect on all viewers -- no matter their age, ethnicity, sex, or background.
Written and directed by Richard LaGravanese
Starring Hilary Swank, Patrick Dempsey, Imelda Staunton, Scott Glenn