As of January 5, 2007, Freedom Writers is the surprise of the year. That may not sound like high praise, but I won’t be forgetting this uplifting, ever-so-relevant film in the near future. It may seem like a clichéd mix of Dead Poet’s Society and Dangerous Minds on the surface, but writer/director Richard LaGravenese supplies enough fresh content, well-developed characters, and heart to blindside even the crankiest of moviegoers.
Set in 1994, at the height of racial tensions in the Los Angeles melting pot, Erin Gruwell (Swank), a chirpy, positive-thinking new teacher, takes a job in the slums of the city. A former “A-list” school, it is now run by gang bangers and a never-ending hostility among the races of the students. Clearly in over her head, but nevertheless optimistic, Erin begins to shape the all but closed minds of her pupils and gives them a whole new outlook on life. She gives each student a journal. They won’t be graded and are instructed to write about whatever they wish. The end result is “The Freedom Writers Diary,” which was published in 1999.
To expound on further plot details would ruin the crisp, refreshing content LaGravenese brings to the table. LaGravenese keeps the film moving in rhythmic fashion, alternating between the classroom and the home lives of many of the students. The horrors of the streets are brought to the screen with conviction and the necessary level of shock factor. The evolution of the students is convincing and culminates, at least for me, in a gut-wrenching and undeniably moving scene in which one student reads a passage from his journal exclaiming the he is homeless, but has reason to push forward because of Ms. Gruwell.
The film does border on self-parody a bit in its third act as Erin must face her superiors, who all, of course, think her teaching methods are crazy. Imelda Staunton, as Erin’s direct supervisor, is all but blowing smoke whilst sprouting horns from her head by the conclusion. It is a classic ingredient of the genre to have the school officials who exist mainly for the audience to hate, but it is taken to a new, borderline comical, level here.
Hilary Swank, who is in virtually every frame, carries the movie admirably. She has the kind of smile that assures you she’s a kind person, but she also has the kind of power to make you know she means business. Gruwell becomes much more hard-nosed in the third act, and Swank is the reason we buy Gruwell’s own transformation. Patrick “McDreamy” Dempsey, who is saddled with the role of the neglected husband, adds depth that usually isn’t given to this subplot, thanks in large part to LeGravenese’s script. April L. Hernandez is also worthy of note as Eva, the most troubled of the bunch.
Touching, funny, and full of inspiration, Freedom Writers is a very solid entry to 2007’s inaugural slate. Don’t let genre familiarity prevent you from seeing one of the best dramas of the last several months.
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Length: 123 Minutes
Rating: PG-13 for violent content, some thematic material and language.
Theatrical Release: January 5, 2007
Directed by: Richard LaGravenese
Written by: Richard LaGravenese. Based upon the book “The Freedom Writers Diary” by Freedom Writers & Erin Gruwell.
Cast: Hilary Swank, Patrick Dempsey, Scott Glenn, Imelda Staunton, April L. Hernandez, Mario