Review by Jack Foley
DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Audio commentary with Richard Lagravenese & Hilary Swank; Deleted scenes; Making a dream; Freedom Writers family; Theatrical trailer; Freedom Writers: The story behind the story; Photo gallery.
THE movies are peppered with tales of inspirational teachers who succeed against overwhelming odds, whether it’s Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society, Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds or – most impressively – Edward James Olmos in Stand & Deliver.
Oscar-winning actress Hilary Swank is the latest to step into the classroom in Richard LaGravenese’s Freedom Writers, a film inspired by the true story and diary entries of a class of Long Beach, California teenagers after the LA riots.
Swank plays idealistic new recruit Erin Gruwell who arrives at Wilson Classical High School determined to make a difference. Placed in a classroom of mostly black, Jewish, Latino and Asian street teenagers, she’s quickly dismayed to discover the racist tensions that exist and determines to provide them with an education that will prepare them for a better life.
Giving each student a journal, she encourages them to write about their past, present and future, as well as good days and bad ones, and slowly wins their respect, educating them on issues such as the Holocaust and teaching them that there’s more to life than merely surviving each day.
But her dedication to her students comes at personal cost, placing a strain on her marriage and putting her at odds with many of her teaching colleagues.
For the most part, Freedom Writers succeeds in entertaining despite its stereotypes and over-familiarity. Swank provides a typically endearing presence and portrays Gruwell as a fiercely determined individual who would stop at nothing to help her students, no matter what the cost to herself.
While the students themselves – including April Lee Hernandez and Mario as two class rebels – are a charismatic bunch whose performances rise above the usual cliches.
Their exploits, too, are genuinely impressive, such as dining with Holocaust survivors (played by actual veterans in the film).
But there are faults. Imelda Staunton is short-changed in a thankless role as a more traditional colleague opposed to Gruwell’s unorthodox methods (proof that the Americans can always make a baddy out of a Brit), while Grey’s Anatomy‘s Patrick Dempsey is woefully one-dimensional as Gruwell’s unsympathetic husband.
The film could have benefited from spending a little more time in their company and exploring the implications of putting work before everything. Instead, it opts to cast Swank in too angelic a light and fails to provide Dempsey with anything gritty to work with.
A running time just in excess of two hours is also likely to test viewers’ patience, particularly during the drawn out conclusion.
But for anyone willing to forgive its flaws, Freedom Writers is a better-than-average entry into the genre that pays effective tribute to the achievements of its central character. It’s inspirational in its own small way.
Running time: 2hrs 3mins