Judge Daniel MacDonald found that this inspiring writing teacher touched him in special places. No, wait...that didn't exactly come out right. Maybe he needs more writing lessons.
Their Story. Their Words. Their Future.
Written and directed by the talented Richard LaGravenese (writer of The Fisher King and The Bridges of Madison County), and featuring a cast led by two-time Academy Award winner Hillary Swank (Million Dollar Baby), along with Imelda Staunton (Vera Drake), career-rebounder Patrick Dempsey (With Honors), and the always reliable Scott Glenn (Backdraft), Freedom Writers sounds like an absolute winner on paper. But factor in this being an inspirational teacher biopic, a sub-genre prone to predictable middle-of-the-road fare about as edgy as a tennis ball, and the outlook is more uncertain. Will this picture make you want to move mountains, or jump off of one?
Facts of the Case
Shortly after the Los Angeles riots, new teacher Erin Gruwell (Swank) is all enthusiastic optimism when she shows up for her first day at Long Beach's Woodrow Wilson High School, until a fight breaks out about two minutes into class. Welcome to room 203.
She quickly learns that most of her students have been touched by gang violence, if they're not in gangs themselves, and are deeply divided by racial tension, the school having been forcibly integrated just recently. The rest of the administration has given up on these kids, withholding supplies and keeping expectations low. While Gruwell takes this as a challenge, her early efforts at reaching her students aren't particularly successful. But when she passionately reacts to a racist action in class, something changes, and Gruwell alters her curriculum to focus on tolerance and empowerment. In an attempt to give her kids an outlet for their repressed angst, Gruwell hands out journals, asking the kids to write every day. They take to this quickly and wholeheartedly, and before long have dubbed themselves the Freedom Writers. The class learns to tell their own stories, and through an increasingly interactive teaching method learn the stories of others, including a group of Holocaust survivors. Since the film is based upon a book called The Freedom Writers Diary, by The Freedom Writers with Erin Gruwell, you can guess how things end up.
Despite its potential for blandness, this is a surprisingly engaging, intelligent piece of drama that is among the best of its kind. More Stand and Deliver than Dangerous Minds, the movie wisely focuses its energy on the kids and their gradual transformation as much or more than the nobleness of their teacher. Many of the sacrifices made by Gruwell—moonlighting in two separate jobs to pay for field trips and supplies, the gradual disintegration of her marriage, driving kids to their homes, etc.—could have been milked like a Holstein for their dramatic potential; instead, we find out about most of her efforts through snippets of dialogue and the occasional montage. The movie has a larger point than to simply showcase the extraordinary efforts of one good teacher—it wants us to see how much this underestimated group of students was able to accomplish when given a bit of support and treated with respect. Further, it recognizes the life and death matters these students are forced to deal with on a daily basis, asking us to first consider their circumstances before judging their actions. While other films have dealt with inner-city kids, Freedom Writers refreshingly avoids being condescending, treating the students as heroic for having persevered despite their social conditions.
Furthermore, the film mostly avoids stereotypical characterizations that can be all too familiar in this type of picture—the sensitive jock, the tough kid who leans how to cry, the outcast who attempts suicide, the introvert who becomes part of the group—opting to create an almost homogenous classroom population. Not that the kids aren't treated as individuals (on the contrary, the movie manages to successfully develop a number of memorable characters), but they all come across as kids living in the same city, with at least some common experiences and attitudes. By and large, we get the impression that they listen to the same music, go to the same movies, shop at the same stores. There's a real understanding of youth behavior here that is sadly missing in so many pictures set in a school.
I admired the fact that this is a story about an actual teacher doing some actual teaching. Often the inspirational "teacher" in these films is not a teacher at all, but someone from another profession with no formal training, leading to unorthodox methods that accomplish what the establishment could not. I've always found—whether based on factual account or not—this setup to be somewhat insulting to our teaching professionals. Teachers have an awful lot of training behind them, not only in the curriculum to be presented, but also in how to help kids learn. Gruwell was successful with her students not only because she was able to adapt her lessons to make them relevant to the kids' lives, but also because she knew how to teach kids to learn—evidenced by the fact that all 150 Freedom Writers graduated from high school. A 100% success rate is nothing to sneeze at.
Clearly, these were youth in desperate need of an outlet for self expression, stifled by the requisite posturing of their gang-affiliated friends and by racial divisions that they don't understand yet feel compelled to abide by. Through the journals, she is privy to the innermost musings of her kids; hearing in their own words what they can't speak aloud, she is profoundly moved by the experience. That their book became a bestseller speaks to just how universal their stories are, and how valuable their expression can be.
Much of the movie's effectiveness can be credited to LaGravenese, who approaches the project as a period piece, and soaks it in hip hop music from the early nineties; as someone who was in high school during that time, I loved to hear some of these formative tunes again. Kudos for resisting studio pressure to include new songs from current artists, as the accurate music choices—and costume design, for that matter—acts as a subtle reminder of the setting.
Bringing the story to life, Hilary Swank turns in another sincere, complete performance as Erin Gruwell—she owns this character, and is captivating to watch. She's so eager, so seemingly spontaneous, that the two-time Oscar winner melts away, leaving only the person she is portraying. While it's not nearly as meaty a role as she had in Million Dollar Baby or Boys Don't Cry, she seems equally committed to emotional honesty, and I've never found her as appealing as in this film.
The supporting roles are less well defined, but well played. Patrick Dempsey is especially enjoyable, communicating as much with pauses and looks as with the dialogue he is given. He feels like a bigger presence than he actually is. Imelda Staunton (Vera Drake), as administrator Ms. Campbell with whom Erin bumps heads, also does a lot with a little, wringing sympathy from a characteristically unsympathetic character.
The DVD provides a fine showcase for the cinematography of Jim Denault (Maria Full of Grace), with plenty of fine object detail and no distracting mosquito noise or false contouring. On the audio side, this film has a lot of music, reproduced with plenty of bass and stereo separation in the 5.1 mix. Black Eyed Peas' musician will.i.am worked with Mark Isham (Crash) on the score, creating a hip-hop sonic landscape to bridge between the source music and more delicate orchestral themes. Nicely done.
The included deleted scenes feature some real gems, the best of which finds the class attending a screening of Schindler's List, followed by dinner at a high end restaurant. It's all information contained elsewhere in the picture so I can appreciate why it was excised, but it's well worth checking out. The audio commentary by Swank and LaGravenese is also insightful. The included featurettes, though, are basically a mutual admiration society (the few comments by the real Erin Gruwell are appreciated), giving some fluffy promotional talk but not much as far as substance.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Despite the praise I've levied on the picture, at the end of the day Freedom Writers isn't going to win any awards for originality. Teachers, like firefighters, are uncontested heroes in our society, and inspirational, selfless acts are being committed by them each and every day, many of which would bring a tear to the eye of the movie going public. But when the stories are told, they will tend to come across in similar ways. What makes Freedom Writers different is in its small deviations from the formula, but that doesn't mean it isn't formulaic. A good movie doesn't have to reinvent the wheel, and this surely doesn't.
There are a few scenes that don't quite work as they should, specifically when Gruwell is reading her students' journals, and visualizes them sitting in the classroom in front of her dramatically recounting their deep thoughts in person. I found this really broke the façade of toughness that the students have put up as a front, making them seem overly willing to open up, which then undermines subsequent scenes when they're back to their distant selves. I appreciate the need to make the words on the page cinematic, but found these scenes took me right out of the movie.
Finally, there's mention in the behind-the-scenes featurette about several TV specials made about the Freedom Writers in the 90s—why couldn't one of those be included in this DVD package? Seeing the real students in their day would have added a lot to the potential appreciation of the picture (and maybe sold a few books, too).
Freedom Writers is like a Christmas present without a gift bag—you know exactly what you're are going to get, but the lack of surprise doesn't make it any less enjoyable. It's a moving and motivating tale not just of one teacher's accomplishment, but also of tolerance and empathy, with an authentic feel (within its PG-13 constraints) and a great soundtrack (at least for those who like early-nineties rap). Recommended.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Richard LaGravenese and Hilary Swank
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