Inspirational movies often infuse itself with energy and impart some original elements to the story. The result might look familiar but it doesn't hinder your enjoyable experience. Richard LaGravenese's "Freedom Writers" (2007) is one of those movies, which belongs to the long line of idealistic teacher vs unteachable teenagers. However, it takes a bold approach of being honest and earnest. Yeah, there's nothing in here that wasn't already discussed in "The Blackboard Jungle" (1955), "To Sir with Love" (1967), "Stand and Deliver" (1988), "Lean on Me" (1989), "Finding Forrester" (2000) and the maudlin "Dangerous Minds." But, this movie is based on a real teacher and her real accomplishments -- Erin Gruwell of Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach.
It is the year 1994. Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank) is an English teacher assigned to the freshman class at Woodrow Wilson High. The school is situated in an Southern California neighborhood. The 1991 beating of Rodney King and the subsequent riots has resulted in voluntary desegregation in the schools. The Wilson High once had students with high academic scores. With the integration of underprivileged boys and girls (who use drugs) and juvenile delinquents, the school and the neighborhood resembles a war zone where people are killed regularly on the streets. The educational institution is said to have students divided into four camps: whites, Cambodians, Latinos and blacks.
Erin starts the curriculum with Homer's "Odyssey." After seeing the war zone and hearing about a local gang shooting, she sees the urgency of seeking out more relevant subject matter. So, Erin tries to connect with them by talking their language and by referring to cultural artifacts they are familiar with. These efforts end in vain because they immediately judge her as just another white person trying to make them over.
One day, Erin catches the students giggling over the caricature of a black classmate. She explains the crudeness of the drawing by comparing it to the kind of drawings of Jews that the Nazis used to inflame resentments in Germany. Erin gets shocked when she comes to know that none has heard of the Holocaust. And once, she gives out the copies of "The Diary of Anne Frank", the students become engrossed. She explains Hitler's actions against the Jews with the instances of gang violence. Eventually, Erin hits upon the students' hearts and minds by motivating them to write a journal -- the assemblage of which became the book ("The Freedom Writers Diary") on which the film is based.
Director Richard LaGravense was the screenwriter, who spun gold out of the novel "The Bridges of Madison County." With "Freedom Writers" -- his second feature film as director -- he resists the temptation to focus primarily on their idealistic instructor, Erin Gruwell. He gives equal screen time for young talents along with experienced veterans. LaGravense uses voice-overs -- lifted from the actual students' diaries -- to provide the framework for the subplots (those of the teenagers), thereby lending a ring of authenticity.
Hilary Swank -- two times Oscar winner -- is a little old to play the 23 year old teacher, but she adds a layer of steeliness and determination to her portrayal of Erin. Like "Million Dollar Baby", she smiles her way through the early part of the movie and then develops a harder edge later in the proceedings. Scott Glenn exhibits great acting in the role of Erin's father, even though it is of limited importance. Patrick Dumpsey's attention starved husband character is not well developed and Imelda Staunton's has nothing much to do in the role of teacher resisting the rule-breaking newcomer. Among the young actors, April Lee Hernandez's gives a standout performance as Eva.
As an idealistic teacher, Erin shows the students, how their struggles have similitude in other people's lives and in history. With the Holocaust lessons, she gives them circumstance and teaches them to express themselves within it. The scene, where a boy who hasn't spoken for all year finally reading his journal is one of the best heartrending scene. The book and the movie lionize the unity that can rise out of diversity when individuals break down the walls that separate them from others. That's a lesson important for nations and communities all over the world (to arise out of the dignity of difference).
"Freedom Writers" is predictable and corny, at times, but has enough heart and mind to blindside even the crankiest of viewers.
Freedom Writers -- IMDb