No matter how you spin it, you've seen "Freedom Writers" before. The story of a teacher inspiring a classroom of underdogs to academic excellence, especially a Caucasian teacher in an urban setting, has been told a hundred times over. That said, we have to move past a simple knuckle-raking critique over a bounty of clichés; the intent and soul of the creation is what should be the focus here.
Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank, in a baffling performance of bright-eyed exaggeration) is an ambitious new teacher at the integrated Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach, California. It's been two years since Rodney King and the riots, and racial tension and gang troubles are at an all time high. Handed a group of teenagers who couldn't care less about their education, Erin stumbles into a fight to challenge these minds, putting her young reputation, marriage (Patrick Dempsey plays her husband), and standing with her colleagues at stake to inspire these tough youths to better their dead-end lives.
It comes as a moderate shock that screenwriter Richard LaGravenese is credited as the director of "Freedom Writers." He was once the creative force behind the modern classic, "The Fisher King," so it's startling that he would willingly wade in the crowded waters of such murky formula all these years later. Times must be tough.
LaGravenese seems torn on what to say with the film. It isn't a very evocative glance at gang violence, resembling stagy outtakes from "21 Jump Street" whenever it wants to hammer home the gloom of street life and random racially-charged murder. It also takes "Freedom" quite a large and unforgivable amount of screentime to settle down into a rhythm where Erin looks to impress upon her students the realities of life outside of the "da hood."
Here, the film mixes unbearably hokey "my badness" material with something I didn't expect from a picture this threadbare: sensitivity. Erin, in desperation mode trying to get the kids to relate to anything, starts to introduce her students to the Holocaust, and the "original gang," the Nazis. It's a much more heartfelt subplot than it reads, opening the eyes of these lost souls to the horrors that befell others. LaGravenese executes this subplot with more heart than I think it deserves (a film highlight is a field trip to the Museum of Tolerance, which stuns the kids into respect), and for a brief moment, "Freedom" disregards formula, letting silent revelation plays across the kids' faces, and Erin an earned moment of victory.
Because certain sections of "Freedom" are quite well done, it makes the laughable characterizations of Erin's detractors all the more painful to watch. After such a delicate portrayal of racial difficulty and insensitivity, LaGravenese decides to portray all the Caucasian characters outside of Erin as huffy, buffoonish racists and pessimists. Not only is it insulting to the story he's trying to tell, but also suggests the director holds a very low opinion of the intelligence of his audience. Why not just have Erin's colleagues walk around in Klan robes? Or stroke their long, tangled moustaches when they thwart the teacher's progress?
If you haven't had your fill of this genre in "Dangerous Minds," "Coach Carter," "Take the Lead" or many of the other offshoots of hood healing, than perhaps "Freedom Writers" is the perfect picture to distract you over the long, cold January month. However, if you have even the slightest hint of fatigue from this genre, "Freedom Writers" will only exacerbate the headache.
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