Freedom Writers is the latest in a long line of films in which an inspiring teacher saves a classroom of throwaway inner-city kids. From "Blackboard Jungle" to "Dangerous Minds," this cinema myth assumes that with the right teacher, lots of warmth and concern, troubled adolescent kids will become productive citizens. Teachers surely represent a powerful influence in a child's healthy development, but to place the entire burden of society's ailments on the local school Overloads a system that can provide only a small part of the process of growing up.
Offering much of the allure of a modern fairy tale, "Freedom Writers" has enough bright moments to satisfy all but the most skeptical viewers. Based on the true story of Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank), a bright, idealistic young teacher, the film follows her first year at Woodrow Wilson High in Long Beach, Calif., after voluntary desegregation had been implemented following the 1992 Rodney King riots. Erin has nothing but high hopes and a brilliant smile to offer her rowdy freshman English class, a lethal mix of members of opposed gangs. The only thing most of her students share is a general hatred of anything the predominantly white school system has to offer.
"I'll give this bitch a week," one student proclaims when he first enters her class. Though fights break out and attendance dwindles, Erin works hard to motivate her charges. She even meets with resistance from the teaching staff whose guideline for students is "to obey through discipline." Cynically, these colleagues reassure her, "They'll all drop out by the end of the semester, anyway." Maternal Mrs. Campbell, the head of the English department (played with delightfully mean-spirited relish by Imelda Staunton), is particularly resentful of Erin, throwing as many bureaucratic wrenches in her way as she can. Not to be daunted, however, Erin begins to develop teaching methods that are meaningful to her kids.
The breakthrough comes when she makes a connection between their lives and those of children during the Holocaust, introducing them to The Diary of Anne Frank. Even more important, she asks her students to keep their own journals, and their intensely personal writing helps her-and us--see each student as a unique individual. The young actors who play the students are talented, but it is Eva (April Lee Hernandez), a pretty Latina, who stands out. A witness to a gang killing, she must make the painful decision whether to tell the truth in court or lie to cover up for her gang.
Over time, Erin's students change, begin to care for one another, and even sponsor Holocaust victims to visit the school. They decide to call themselves the Freedom Writers after the famous "freedom riders" of the 1960s civil rights movement. The price is high for Erin: She must take on extra jobs to buy what's needed for her classroom, and her marriage slowly begins to fall apart. But the kids' test scores rise and they begin to use lessons from the classroom on their dangerous, violent streets.
Director Richard LaGravenese provides a nice public school grunge look for the picture and takes care that this feel-good movie doesn't become simplistic. Hilary Swank's performance, from starry-eyed optimist to struggling realist, evolves with a natural flow. …