It's always satisfying when a movie defies an obvious formula and delivers something better. Freedom Writers is the first such surprise of 2007, a genuinely touching entry in a genre that often wallows in cliché: a motivational teacher inspiring a group of troubled kids.
The list in this category is long, and the quality broad, ranging from To Sir, with Love (Sidney Poitier straightens up hooligans) to Sunset Park (Rhea Perlman coaches hoops!). Instead of sliding into pitfalls of predictability, writer Richard LaGravenese
(The Fisher King, Beloved), who also directs, relies on straight, unforced dialogue delivered by a fine cast. Like many similar films, this one happens to be based on truth. Article continues below
is focused and confident as Erin Gruwell, a well-scrubbed, bushy-tailed teacher in 1994 Long Beach, California, where memories of the '92 riots still waft in the air. Her class is made up of blacks, Latinos, and Cambodians, many stuck in gang situations and horribly broken families. While these kids fight -- often literally -- for acceptance and territory, school is an unnecessary nuisance. But as Gruwell goes above and beyond to aid her kids, attending class becomes the students' only respite from a frightening world.
You can imagine how hokey this could have turned out in the wrong hands. But Freedom Writers strikes the right chord by omitting or twisting the obvious. When Ms. G loses her cool with the class after a student is ridiculed, she doesn't deliver some contrived "we're all equal" speech; instead, she explains how the Nazis used propaganda to become the most horrible "gang" ever. With a wonderful command of intensity and vulnerability, Swank exclaims, "You think your gangs are tough? This gang took over countries."
When the kids speak their minds, via journals that became the real-life Freedom Writers Diary, the monologues ring true with detail, full of hatred and sadness. The actors performing them, particularly young April Lee Hernandez
, tear into the material, and LaGravenese balances just enough backstory for us to feel the pain.
Freedom Writers reminds me of a time when there were a glut of LA gang films, most well meaning, some exploiting the issue as a Hollywood commodity, all illuminating a true American tragedy. Now, more than a decade later, crime has decreased in LA, but interracial gang violence is on the rise, a fact that's virtually out of the national consciousness. That's the current crime: Young people still suffering like those in this film, making the desperation of Freedom Writers that much more powerful.
Gruwell may sympathize with her students' plight, but she never appears to feel sorry for them. Swank's portrayal avoids an epiphany moment, or the conventional ebb and flow emotions. Instead, her Erin Gruwell keeps plugging and chugging, devising new ways to impart that energy to her kids with nary a ridiculous fist pump in sight. Just giving them new paperback books wins their respect and rightfully so.
Some of the standard plot points are unavoidable. Gruwell alienates her husband, played impressively well by Patrick Dempsey
, by the way. She has a heart-to-heart with her father (Scott Glenn
). She chooses to battle cynical teachers and immovable Board of Education regulations. Although some may find the execution a little too textbook (pardon the pun), LaGravenese keeps everything feeling just a little different. When Freedom Writers does work, it works very well.