|Freedom Writers (2007)
Swank, Imelda Staunton, Patrick Dempsey, Scott Glenn
Director: Richard LaGravenese
There is something to be said for a movie that exceeds your expectations despite its near-total lack of surprises. If you were anything like BE movie critic Jason Zingale, you saw the concept for “Freedom Writers” and said, “Hmmm, ‘Dead Poets Society of the Dangerous Minds’” (which is about seven words short of becoming a Panic! at the Disco song title, but that’s another subject). In truth, that sums up “Freedom Writers” almost exactly, but thanks to a sharp script and some finely tuned performances by both students and teacher, the movie rises above its more predictable trappings to deliver a solid tale about studentz in da hood. Or, more accurately, studentz from da hood schoolin’ in Wonder Bread Land.
Hilary Swank stars as Erin Gruwell, the boundlessly optimistic daughter of a civil rights activist who takes a job teaching ninth and tenth grade English to a group of bused-in inner city kids of all stripes in post-riots Los Angeles. Erin’s first lesson comes from her students, who don’t have much desire to learn to begin with but are smart enough to know when someone’s patronizing them (Erin tries to connect with them using Tupac Shakur lyrics). Her second education comes at the hands of her peers, most notably her supervisor Margaret Campbell (Imelda Staunton), who views Erin’s attempts to actually reach her students as a waste of time. But reach them she does, by giving them notebooks and asking them to make an entry each day about something, anything. Erin’s husband, Scott (Patrick Dempsey), however, can sit idly by for only so long while Erin takes a second and then a third job in order to pay for the books that the school board repeatedly denies her.
There are definitely scenes that will remind people of “Dead Poets Society,” especially the way that Erin tosses the curriculum aside in order to stabilize the classroom, but it’s not done in a showy or forceful manner. You simply see a rookie teacher trying to plant a seed in students that the rest of the faculty had considered unreachable on sight. I’m not sure if that’s a testament to the no-nonsense performance by Swank or the script by writer/director Richard LaGravenese (he also wrote “The Ref,” one of this writer’s all-time favorite Christmas movies). Either way, both deserve praise.
The movie’s secret weapon, despite the teachings of Brian Cox’s character in “Adaptation,” is its use of narration. Sure, there are the expected sequences where you see Erin reading the students’ journals and hear the students speaking the words, but it is best served in the classroom, where you get to read their thoughts in real time and the threat of a violent outburst is palpable. Props also go to the casting director, who brings in several talented first-timers (though few of them actually look like high school freshmen) to work with the sublimely talented Swank. Staunton, unfortunately, doesn’t fare as well; Margaret seems level-headed at first, but she may as well be wearing a black cape, waxing her moustache and laughing maniacally by movie’s end. Thank goodness, then, that Dempsey’s character is given some dignity, instead of playing the suffering but obedient house-husband. Indeed, he gets several of the movie’s best lines.
Someone out there is going to smear “Freedom Writers” for being one of those movies where the white person comes along to save the day for the poor, helpless minorities. Don’t listen to such cynical, self-congratulatory nonsense, as it’s an insult to what Gruwell accomplished and what LaGravenese and Swank did to tell her story. Granted, the story of Gruwell and her students has been told before, and that familiarity proves to be one of “Freedom Writers’” limitations. But the story itself is extraordinary, whether or not a white woman was leading the charge.
Let me just begin by saying that I absolutely hate when an actor records an audio commentary for a film they’ve never seen before. That’s the case with Hilary Swank on her commentary track with writer/director Richard LaGravenese for “Freedom Writers.” Recorded the morning before the world premiere, the commentary is dry and brief, as are the rest of the special features, including a collection of unnecessary deleted scenes and three featurettes on the film’s soundtrack (“Making a Dream”), production (“Freedom Writers Family”) and origin (“The Story Behind the Story”).