Another movie about a well-meaning, white-bread teacher thrust among the savages? No, not by a long shot. Although “Freedom Writers” is the latest in a long line of saint-saves-students stories, it takes the bold approach of being earnest, honest and unafraid to be called naive. As a result, it’s extremely affecting. Presided over by a sensitive, open performance by Hilary Swank and blessed by a gifted group of young actors, the drama could win hearts and dollars, especially if Paramount pushes pic’s humanity over its presumed nobility.
There are moments in this, screenwriter Richard LaGravenese’s third feature as a director, that may require viewers to take shots of insulin, but Swank’s performance overcomes the shock of the sentimental: As Erin Gruwell — the real-life teacher who, with her students, wrote “The Freedom Writers Diary” — she is a delicate piece of fresh meat for a school of young high schoolers who are better-versed in street fights than Robert Frost.
Armed with ambitious lesson plans and dreamy ideals, Erin arrives at Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach, Calif.,thoroughly ill-equipped for a student body raised according to the ethics of urban tribalism. Swank portrays Erin’s awe, panic and ultimately her very courageous resolve to be who she is and fight on.
Better known for his screenwriting (“A Little Princess,” “Beloved,” “The Horse Whisperer”), helmer LaGravenese mixes stylistic maneuvers while hitting very few speed bumps. Starting out with footage of the Los Angeles riots of 1992 (the film is set in ’94), he sets up the students’ psychology through an internal dialogue narrated by one student, Eva (April Lee Hernandez), a Latina gang member whose worldview is shared by her peers: Their streets are a war zone, and school, while relatively safe, is an exercise in futility.
Arriving at Woodrow Wilson for her first day, Erin meets her soon-to-be nemesis Margaret Campbell (a terrific Imelda Staunton), who eyes Erin’s string of pearls with apprehension. Margaret — and the audience — just know those pearls are going to be ripped off Erin’s neck by some felonious student; they eventually serve as both MacGuffin and talisman.
Well shot by Jim Denault, “Freedom Writers” is a good-looking film, although it treads on shaky moral ground. Why does it always seem that a well-to-do white teacher is towing minority kids out of the intellectual quicksand of their environment? In this case, because the story is based on the real-life Erin Gruwell and her real-life class.
More crucially, “Freedom Writers,” initially at least, paints such a hopeless picture of underprivileged black and Latino teen lifethat many viewers would advise Erin to throw in the towel. Eventually, however, the desperation of their circumstances adds luster to Erin’s work in the classroom.
Most of the movie takes place in that classroom, where Erin hits upon “The Diary of Anne Frank” as a way into her students’ hearts and minds — and as a motivation for their own journal writing, a collection of which became the book on which the film is based. A visit to the school by Miep Gies (Pat Carroll), the Dutchwoman who helped hide the Franks (and still lives in the Netherlands), is virtually guaranteed to reduce even the most jaded viewer to a heap of weepy gelatin.