Freedom Writers
R E V I E W   B Y   R I C H   C L I N E dir-scr Richard LaGravenese
with Hilary Swank, Patrick Dempsey, Scott Glenn, Imelda Staunton, John Benjamin Hickey, Robert Wisdom, April Lee Hernandez, Mario, Jason Finn, Hunter Parrish, Deance Wyatt, Kristin Herrera
release US 5.Jan.07, UK 2.Mar.07
07/US Paramount 2h03

Lady in red: Swank

dempsey glenn staunton

Freedom Writers There have been so many heartfelt movies about the importance of giving disadvantaged youth a chance that it's easy to be cynical about yet another one. But this well-made, sharply performed film deserves a look.

Erin Gruwell (Swank) is understandably nervous about her new job teaching English for remedial students in an integrated Los Angeles high school. And sure enough, these inner-city kids are rough, challenging and not remotely interested in studying. It takes her awhile, battling the dismissive attitudes of her department director (Staunton) and a senior teacher (Hickey), to figure out how to reach these teens, encouraging them to write about their lives--guns and all. But while Erin's father (Glenn) is extremely supportive, her husband (Dempsey) struggles with her workaholic ways.

Based on the students' actual diaries, and narrated in their voices, the film has a raw sensibility that stares down the test-score mentality in America's education system, in which privileged students excel, while kids with more difficult backgrounds are "maintained" in the system for statistics and state funding, but not to actually educate them. As Gruwell goes way beyond the call to push these young people to open their minds and break the pattern, the film is genuinely inspirational.

It also has a terrific ethnic mix that captures the reality of urban society--a collection of cultures and races that have never really tried to blend. This is a diverse group of kids who have learned all the wrong lessons far too early, and it's powerfully moving to watch them begin to see the world around them, and to understand through history that they're not the first people to live in an oppressive system.

But it's not like we haven't seen this before, sometimes in even more brutally honest ways. While this film has a terrific story, and strong acting anchored by Swank's superb central performance, it's also a little slick and gimmicky, playing up the surging sentiment and relying too heavily on the villain of the piece (why does there need to be a baddie?). But Gruwell's astonishing achievements manage to break through all that Hollywood gloss. Here's hoping for a proper documentary.

cert 12 themes, violence, language 23.Jan.06

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2007 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall