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Reviews » HD DVD Reviews » Freedom Writers (HD DVD)
Freedom Writers (HD DVD)
Paramount // PG-13 // May 22, 2007 // Region 0
List Price: $39.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted May 28, 2007 | E-mail the Author
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It may be anchored around a doggedly determined, inspirational idealist who teaches her rough, jaded inner city students that there's more to life than gangs and gunfire, but Freedom Writers is hardly just another rehash of movies like Dangerous Minds, Stand and Deliver, or Lean on Me. For one, there's...um...and it...no, wait, in this one part, the...teacher...does this...y'know... Oh, hell, it's more of the same syrupy, formulaic leftovers from a couple hundred other movies, many of which aren't nearly as maudlin and transparently cloying as this one. It's a shame because there's a real sense of warmth and sincerity in what Freedom Writers tries to express, but it loses its way in trying to make the story as harrowing and Hollywood as possible.

Based on a true story, Freedom Writers stars Hilary Swank as Erin Gruwell, a bright-eyed optimist who's trying to put the spirit of her father's civil rights activism to work at a recently integrated school in Long Beach. It's 1994, and tensions are still running high in the wake of the L.A. riots. Test scores have plummeted at the once-prestigious high school, and the racial divide sparks incendiary bursts of violence. This isn't a case of a green first-year teacher drawing the short straw; Gruwell seeks out Wilson High School as an opportunity to put her newly-acquired degree to work and really make a difference. No one else shares her enthusiasm, though: not her bored husband (Patrick Dempsey), not her indifferent coworkers, who are more concerned about her kids stealing or carving up their books, and least of all her students. Her kids have resigned themselves to teenage pregnancy, death at the hands of gang violence, or a lifetime of minimum wage mediocrity. Their spirits long since broken, they shrug off Gruwell's lesson plans and her "my badness" and "Two-pack Shakur" perky attempts at bonding with them.

After an incident where the class passes around a racist cariacture of one of her students, Gruwell finally finds an analogy that breaks through to them, telling them about a gang that leaned on those sorts of drawings to demean their enemies...a gang that decimated everyone and everything that stood in their path...that engaged in turf wars on a global scale. While you and I know she's talking about the Nazis, her kids don't even know what the Holocaust is. Gruwell convinces the school board not to stand in her way as she takes her students on her own time to the Simon Wiesenthal Center to learn more, and at the expense of her floundering marriage, Gruwell takes on two part time jobs to buy her own books and bring in Holocaust survivors for dinner speaking engagements. She and her students even hold fundraisers to fly in Miep Gies, an elderly Dutch woman who a half-century earlier had hidden Anne Frank from the Nazis. Gruwell has her kids keep their own diaries as well, and her determination and unwavering faith in her students pay off, showing them that there is a better way of life.

Freedom Writers has been accused of exaggerating what life was really like at Wilson High School. Swank's Erin Gruwell is all toothy grins and optimism; aside from the obligatory weepy scene or two where she struggles with self-doubt, she's otherwise unerringly confident in her methods and these children. Her life revolves purely around her students, as we're reminded every twenty minutes or so when her husband rears his head to say "hey, your life revolves purely around your students". Her only character flaw is that she cares too much, and that sort of perfection really just isn't that compelling dramatically.

To really hammer the point home about how spectacular and amazing Gruwell is, she's flanked on all sides by pessimists. Gruwell's father is gradually won over by her students, and there's a school board official who's more tolerant than supportive, but otherwise, just about every single character in the movie is either bitter, resentful, or racist. Imelda Staunton -- who'd beaten out Hilary Swank a couple of years earlier for Best Actress when she took home the statuette for Vera Drake -- gets the worst of it as an unsupportive school official who gnashes her teeth every time Gruwell gets any press. It's one thing for Gruwell's co-workers not to have any faith in her unconventional methods or her students, but to flail their arms around and act like Klondike Kat... "Ooooohhhh, I'm gonna make mince meat outta that mouse!" It's ridiculous and really just poor screenwriting; I'm halfway surprised there isn't a clip in the deleted scenes with Staunton's Margaret Campbell ordering Earthquake Pills from the Acme catalog to plop into Grewell's styrofoam coffee cup.

The structure of the movie rarely strays from the Inspirational Teacher formula, but some stretches of it really do make an impact. Freedom Writers is more or less inert for its first half hour until Gruwell introduces her students to the Nazi's reign of terror, and when they start writing in their journals for the first time and make the trek to the Museum of Tolerance, there's an intensity and sincerity that's genuinely effective. It's just that for so much of the movie, writer/director Richard LaGravenese is hellbent on overdramatizing everything to play up the drama.

It also doesn't help that the movie limps on for another half-hour after hitting its highest point -- the arrival of Miep Gies -- instead rambling on with her students rabblerabblerabble-ing about how Gruwell only teaches freshman and sophomore English classes and that they'll eventually have to study under other teachers. It's not a plot point I can get behind. Have they really learned that much about racial tolerance and self-confidence over the course of two years if they need the same teacher to stick around and sustain it? Do they want as few other students in the same underprivileged boat as them to enjoy that same success? Awkwardly delivered line readings like "...or we could paint the administration building with the word 'asshole' in various colors!" (delivered straight and without a trace of irony, believe it or not) just twist the knife. With this pointless and unnecessary coda, Freedom Writers squanders all of the goodwill it had earned in the hour prior.

Its theatrical trailer notes that Freedom Writers is based on "a remarkable true story", but it lacks the self-confidence to tell it; ironic considering that this is a movie in which believing in yourself is a central theme. Events don't just unfold. Everything happens in such a melodramatic, exaggerated way that it feels as if writer/director Richard LaGravenese is violently shaking me by the shoulders, screaming "this is where you're supposed to cry!" in my right ear. Its attempts at being moving and heartfelt are so contrived that I couldn't get lost in the story; I was constantly reminded that I was watching a movie and not a particularly good one at that. Rent It.

Video: Freedom Writers' 1.78:1, AVC-encoded video looks wonderful, in keeping with the exceptionally high quality expected from a movie just out of theaters. I initially had some of the same concerns I did with Norbit, which also had somewhat of a processed, airbrushed, overly digital look to it, but either those issues quickly went away or I just got used to them. Intricate skin textures, particularly in Scott Glenn's weathered face, and lightly visible hairs on the actresses' arms were clear and distinct, and subtle gradations in shadows and the cast's bright, colorful clothing also impressed. There's so much fine object detail that Freedom Writers even makes a sheet of notebook paper in one early close-up look as if it has some depth and texture to it. Contrast has been cranked up a bit, but that's likely a part of the film's aesthetic, and no compression artifacts or wear in the source were spotted throughout.

Audio: As Freedom Writers is a dialogue-heavy movie, the overwhelming majority of the activity in this Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 mix is naturally weighted towards the front speakers. Dialogue is crisp and clear throughout, and the vintage hip-hop and the score by The Black Eyed Peas' Will.i.am fill every speaker and are accompanied by a tight, punchy low-frequency kick. The gang brawls and more bustling exterior shots also make use of the rear speakers, although for whatever reason, they lay dormant in the louder, more confrontational sequences in the classroom. Nothing earth-shattering or remarkable, but the audio accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do.

Six-channel dubs in French and Spanish have also been provided along with the expected assortment of subtitles.

Extras: The disc's audio commentary pairs writer/director Richard LaGravenese with star Hilary Swank. The two are peppy and upbeat but not particularly talkative; there's a lot of dead air in the track, possibly because this was Swank's first time seeing the final cut, and she falls into the trap of watching the movie instead of talking about it. When they do start chatting, the commentary's solid enough, touching on the process of paring down Gruwell's 150 students in her first year to a few key characters, comparing the events in the movie to the real life Eva, noting one actor who was gunned down shortly after filming, their own time in high school, an unconventional approach to casting, licensing the music and assembling the score, as well as the usual talking points. They run out of things to discuss as the movie draws to a close, and since the featurettes on this disc cover the same highlights more efficiently, I'd recommend just giving those a look instead.

The theatrical trailer is the lone high-definition extra on this HD DVD, and the remaining supplements are ported over in standard definition from the DVD and have been letterboxed in non-anamorphic widescreen.

There are four deleted scenes that run around eleven minutes in total, devoting much more time to the character of Eva, a class trip to see Schindler's List and a schmaltzy bit with the kids rushing to speak with a reporter about the film, the racist consequences of the press Gruwell gets, and the kids bonding with a couple of well-to-do adults.

The first of the disc's three featurettes is "Freedom Writers Family", which spends twenty minutes with the cast, writer/director Richard LaGravenese, and Erin Gruwell herself. As its title suggests, the featurette places most of its emphasis on how close everyone grew during filming, along with detailed notes from the young actors about their characters and some introductory comments about how the project came together. The cast, largely made up of young, inexperienced actors, has quite a bit of insight to offer, and Freedom Writers clearly left a genuine emotional impact on everyone involved. I almost feel guilty for dismissing a movie that clearly means so much to them.

The HD DVD also offers a detailed five and a half minute look at Common and Will.i.am recording the Martin Luther King Jr.-sampling "I Have a Dream" as well as speaking about what they set out to accomplish with the song. The last of the featurettes is "Freedom Writers: The Story Behind the Story" (10 min.), and while it's less overtly promotional than most making-of pieces generally are, this has really been pieced together for people who haven't already seen the movie.

Conclusion: There's a compelling story in here somewhere, but Freedom Writers is so concerned with yanking on heart strings that it's unable to do a particularly deft job telling it. Too uneven to recommend as anything more than a rental.
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