Freedom Writers (2007) / Drama
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violent content, thematic material, and language
Running time: 123 min.
Cast: Hilary Swank, Patrick Dempsey, Scott Glenn, Imelda Staunton, April Lee Hernandez, John Benjamin Hickey, Robert Wisdom, Mario, Kristin Herrera, Jacklyn Ngan, Sergio Montalvo, Jason Finn, Deance Wyatt, Vanetta Smith, Gabriel Chavarria, Hunter Parrish
Director: Richard LaGravenese
Screenplay: Richard LaGravenese (based on the book, "Freedom Writers: How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them", by Erin Gruwell and the Freedom Writers)
Review published May 15, 2007
Based on the nonfiction book compiled by Long Beach high school teacher Erin Gruwell from the writings of her economically-challenged and scholastically-underserved students taken from their diaries, Freedom Writers is a formula feel-good film about one teacher's near-quixotic quest to get her students to learn something about themselves, and about others, in order to not be swallowed up by the negativity surrounding them.
Their name stems from the "Freedom Riders", which were the the multi-ethnic passengers on the buses that traveled to peaceably demonstrate against segregation in the Civil Rights Movement of the early 1960s. The name nicely ties in to the segregated cliques that have formed in the Los Angeles area, whereby ethnic background and skin color marked the dividing lines of wars between rival gangs for territory and dominance of the community, which spilled over into violence in the schools when the different cultures of the area are forced to go to school together.
As a new, white-skinned, and somewhat naive teacher in Long Beach, California, Erin Gruwell (Swank, The Black Dahlia) has a hard time touching the minds and hearts of her mostly bused-in, minority freshman students in her grammar class. After realizing that the rampant racism that permeates the community has presented severe obstacles to their educational growth, Ms. Gruwell is determined to find some way to get the students to learn, even when her own colleagues in the school have written them all off as un-teachable.
Utilizing the events of the Holocaust, Gruwell teaches the students a valuable lesson on prejudice, fears, and gangs that inspires them to be better than they ever thought they could be. However, Gruwell's ailing marriage, disapproving father (Glenn, Training Day), and a jaded school administration prove to be daunting adversaries to her plans, and she must make a choice to continue to work overtime to provide an adequate education to her young minds, at the expense of her personal life and possibly her future career.
Freedom Writers has been compared to the 1995 film, Dangerous Minds, which featured a similar true-life story of a White, female teacher trying to break through the color barrier in order to educate her inner city students by getting them to believe in themselves. While some might claim this new film is redundant, it should be remembered that Dangerous Minds itself is also quite formulaic in its own regard, patterned after the many inspirational teacher dramas that paved the way before it. If you are one who enjoys these uplifting stories about overcoming great obstacles in order to make the world a better place, even if the roads traveled by the filmmakers are predictable and somewhat trite, you'll most likely find great value in viewing Freedom Writers as informative, entertaining, and thought-provoking.
As far as films go, the script and direction by Richard LaGravenese (Paris I Love You, Living Out Loud) aren't going to set the cinematic world on fire, as he imbues his tale with ample amounts of artistic license in order to get his overall message across. The turnaround of the attitudes of the class seems too pat and expedient for believability, and many of the events of the film strike me as heavily embellished for the purposes of dramatic tension. Perhaps having lived in Southern California for most of my life, I tend to think that the screenplay by New York native LaGravenese grossly overstates some of the depictions of the community here as largely violent and filled with racial tensions that cause conflicts on a daily basis in nearly every classroom and city block at all times. Certainly, there are flare-ups and violent crimes that occur far too often, and the tension is ever-present, but not to the exceedingly pervasive and perpetually-eruptive extent depicted in the film.
While the film itself may not be the most adept example of how to make an inspirational film, the overall message of the film of never counting out anyone in this world as beyond hope is ultimately delivered. We may not buy all of what we see as authentic, or the classroom kids as representative. We may question the manipulations of the screenplay to only show these kids in Gruwell's class (how did they manage to pass their other courses with their other teachers?), and we never see Gruwell with any of her other students. We may even dismiss the machinations of LaGravenese's story construction as well-intentioned but naive as Gruwell herself initially had been. However, also like Ms. Gruwell's story, despite its flaws, it produces intended results.
Perhaps with a screenwriter more in tune with the nature of the Los Angeles lifestyle, the vernacular, and the prevalent attitudes among the melting pot existence that is Southern California living, the authenticity could have pushed Freedom Writers from a watchable, likeable semi-fantasy into something truly substantial and worthwhile (a la Half Nelson, perhaps), even if it comes at the expense of the very clean, linear narrative. Alas, it is very much a Hollywood treatment, full of glossed-over characterizations and trumped-up conflicts (the other school educators are painted as the villains), and, at best, we are given everything we expect, delivered tidy and sterile like a formula film always tends to. A strong Swank performance and a quality supporting cast certainly help overcome some of the corny theatrics.
Without the fact that it is based in some part from a real-life teacher's curriculum, perhaps it would be dismissed as hogwash, but the diaries do exist, and anyone can view the results for themselves. It's filmmaking that strikes more for the heart than the head, but if you find yourself moved by Gruwell's inspirational story, seeking out the truth of the matter on your own time should feed the intellectual side that is left a bit wanting by LaGravenese's sticky, melodramatic delivery.
©2007 Vince Leo