Freedom Writers
Director: Richard LaGravenese. Cast: Hilary Swank, April Lee Hernandez, Jason Finn, Deance Wyatt, Patrick Dempsey, Scott Glenn, Jacklyn Ngan, Mario, Vanetta Smith, Imelda Staunton, John Benjamin Hickey, Robert Wisdom, Kristin Herrera, Hunter Parrish, Pat Carroll. Screenplay: Richard LaGravenese (based on the book The Freedom Writers Diary by Erin Gruwell and the Freedom Writers).

Photo © 2007 Paramount Pictures/MTV Films
Freedom Writers is Hollywood's version of a real-life tale of heroic teaching. Ironically, the film features almost zero teaching. Despite much pedagogical posturing, it doesn't teach us much, either.

In the mid-1990s, a high-minded but inexperienced educator named Erin Gruwell (played here by Hilary Swank) organized her ninth-grade English class at a public high school in Los Angeles as an ongoing seminar in truth-telling, survival, social justice, and the power of self-expression. Her students, predominantly poor and non-white, read The Diary of Anne Frank and Zlata's Diary and other stories of endangered but headstrong youth around the world. The class reciprocated with the publication of the The Freedom Writers Diary, in which they chronicled their own travails in the face of gang rivalries, poverty, homelessness, racism, apathy (their own and others'), and further layers of personal and social abuse. The core material in Freedom Writers is inspiring for any number of reasons, and you can see why Swank, MTV Films, and director-screenwriter Richard LaGravenese were drawn to it. Unfortunately, the film soon reveals itself as having more invested in the valor and perserverance it depicts than in the exigencies of storytelling and filmmaking. LaGravenese—whose modest directorial debut Living Out Loud was most memorable for its unexpected grace notes and narrative curlicues (a massage, a dance routine), as well as its shrewd, against-type direction of Danny DeVito, Holly Hunter, and Queen Latifah—has gotten a serious case of the jitters here, organizing the film as a series of clunky, predictable beats and slick omissions. The most severe casualty of this approach is that we lose all the connective material between Erin's first, unruly class sessions, and then her first glimmers of connection with her understandably skeptical pupils, and then their triumphant cohering as a class—science-fictionally portrayed as a teacher who never tires and a cadre of students who hate to go home. Early on, Freedom Writers cuts from a fistfight in Gruwell's first class to her coffee break later that day; we hear that Erin is managing two classes of freshmen and sophomores, but we only ever see her with the same kids; we rarely even know what subjects she's imparting. One entire montage manages to suggest that when Erin's class convenes, they dance in the classroom to Montell Jordan's "This Is How We Do It." Unlike, say, last year's superior Half Nelson, Freedom Writers suggests strongly that its makers have never been anywhere near a high-school classroom (surely this can't be the case?). Its implied sentiment that Erin's success with her students is due only to empathetic connection, classroom provisions, and extra-curricular field trips leaves out the two things Freedom Writers purports to glorify: actual teaching and actual learning.

The actors, especially newcomers like April Lee Hernandez and Jason Finn as two of the students, do what they can to enliven the proceedings and inject the film with real clenches of frustration and troubled conscience. Swank doesn't phone in her performance, exactly, but LaGravenese has already communicated everything that interests him about Erin by homing in on broad, clumsy details—her Ann Taylor wardrobe, her garbled slang ("My badness!"), the large pearls around her neck, the larger pearls beaming in her mouth—and Swank doesn't explore Erin so much as she bounds forward on ripples of excitement and niceness. She briefly sounds some deeper notes in a late scene with Patrick Dempsey, a callow wash as her increasingly alienated husband. "I can't believe I'm getting divorced," Erin mutters to a lonely man who has recently protested, from a pit of crude emasculation, "I can't be your wife!" Freedom Writers can't help but invoke a voyeuristic impress into Swank's feelings about her own recent and high-profile divorce, right at the moment we might be learning something valuable about the character she is ostensibly playing. (The same unwanted vibe arises when Imelda Staunton, who went un-Oscared in Vera Drake when Swank copped her second trophy for Million Dollar Baby, exacts a kind of sweet if unwitting revenge, dicing up Swank's vague thesping with a few quick slices of pity, contempt, resentment, and envy.)

Swank's habitual privileging of dogged earnestness over skill or complexity typifies the whole film, which never loses its hold on the social desperation of its students and their appetite for knowledge, but which filters and broadcasts those sentiments in the most abstract, often vacuous ways. I'm not sure why the movie's Erin only feels able to explain the dynamics of power, cruelty, and struggle through serial allusions to the Holocaust—one would think there are closer-to-home prisms by which Erin, or at least the film, might articulate these problems to these students. This strain in the movie's rhetoric, despite some affecting cameos from real-life camp survivors, finally seems like one more way in which Freedom Writers fails to "get" the life of the classroom or the lifeworld of poor, young, multiethnic Angelenos. Certainly, LaGravenese never jives to the obligatory hip-hop soundtrack as he did to the jazz in Living Out Loud; he uses, of all things, Naughty by Nature's exuberant "Hip Hop Hooray" to underline the tensions and intramural fisticuffs Erin witnesses upon arriving for her first day of school.

I've read portions of The Freedom Writers Diary, some of which are quoted at length in this film, and if the movie finally serves to advertise the book and its testimonies (and the axes of injustice, ghettoization, and social stratification that are the contexts for those testimonies), then Freedom Writers will be a hard film to begrudge. Actually, it's already too brisk, reasonably engaging, and aggreeably virtuous to begrudge. But all of that energy and goodness is counterbalanced by the tentative style and script and by a lingering air of failed strategizing: the producers of Erin Brockovich trying to make a folk-hero of another Erin, but without a high-octane star, a full-scale immersion in a place and a community, or a comparable command of the intricacies of power and its effective resistance. I hope the real Freedom Writers are happy with this movie, but I also think they could teach the filmmakers a few things about depth, reflection, panache, and homefront problems that aren't gauzed by cultural or historical distance, or distilled into white-liberal storytelling clichés. Grade: C–

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