Freedom Writers (Paramount Pictures, PG-13)

film_freedom_smThe film's impetus lies in Swank's transformation, a momentum that can be seen as the teacher begins to earn the respect of her students by (surprise!) listening to them and giving them the respect that their community has long forgotten.

 

 

 

 

film_freedom

Even if you've never seen a movie in which a naïve, white teacher attempts to inspire the lives of a group of at-risk, minority youth, the plot is ordinarily predictable. The plot of Freedom Writers is no different, yet the powerful performance of former Oscar-winner Hilary Swank, coupled with the heartfelt initiative behind the film's ultimate purpose, results in a surprisingly moving, emotional story.

Freedom Writers takes place in the aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, and is inspired by the true story of high school teacher Erin Gruwell (Swank), who employs her hardened class of Long Beach freshmen to take an active stand against their worlds of overwhelming violence. Initially adverse to the doe-eyed approach of the first-time teacher, the segregated class of African-Americans, Latinos, and Cambodians (save for one shitting-his-pants white kid, for comedic relief) shrug off Mrs. Gruwell's efforts. How could a white woman who wears pearls to work possibly understand what it's like to believe that you will be dead before you're 20 years old? This is the battle that Swank is up against, not just in the context of the film, but also in the way of overcoming cliches so that the sentiment of Mrs. Gruwell's real-life efforts are not wasted.

The film's impetus lies in Swank's transformation, a momentum that can be seen as the teacher begins to earn the respect of her students by (surprise!) listening to them and giving them the respect that their community has long forgotten. The students (played primarily by a group of unknowns, and led by the performances of April L. Hernandez and Jason Finn) are implored to actively pursue an education. They are given a voice for the first time, as well, writing in a diary that would become the Freedom Writers book upon which this movie was based. Soon, Mrs. Gruwell enlists her doubting father (Scott Glenn) to aid in driving them to a Holocaust museum and taking them to a fancy dinner, and the students are exposed to a world previously made unavailable by teachers and bureaucrats who had given up on them. Thus, when Mrs. Gruwell's students begin to feel pride, respect for each other, and care for their teacher, do we see the open wounds and honest compassion that is lacking in films of a similar genre. Swank really takes off, however, when her obsessive support begins to deteriorate her own home life and her relationship with her abandoned husband (Patrick Dempsey). The altruistic motivations of the real-life Erin Gruwell are evident in Swank's confident portrayal of vulnerability. Despite any reason to believe that she is going to succeed, her personality and beliefs remain unchanged.

The writer/director of Freedom Writers, Richard LaGravenese, does all he can to make the movie a misguided throwaway, with uninspired dialogue and over-dramatics that are wholly unnecessary, unless you like the obvious being beaten into your head. What he does succeed in, however, is capturing the glossed-over significance of a fractured era, reminding the audience that these problems take persistence to overcome, and that these forms of violence are not by any means obsolete. | Dave Jasmon

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