Freedom Writers (United States, 2007)
The key to making a successful formula motion picture is to infuse it with energy and add a few original elements. The overall product might seem familiar but that doesn't mean it can't be an enjoyable viewing experience. This is true regardless of the formula: underdog sports hero, boy meets girl, or unconventional teacher who makes a difference. Freedom Writers falls into the latter category and, as often seems to be the case with movies of this genre, it is based on a true story. Writer/director Richard LaGravenese (whose previous screenplays include The Fisher King and The Bridges of Madison County) does what competent filmmakers do with these Dangerous Minds tales - he takes the basic facts and massages them until they are suitably cinematic. The MTV imprimatur indicates the movie is being targeted at teenagers.
The film is set in Long Beach shortly after the L.A. riots. Hilary Swank plays Erin Gruwell, a crusading young woman who believes the way to stop racial hatred is to influence young minds. To that aim, she applies to work in a forcibly integrated school where the students are divided into four camps: whites, Latinos, Cambodians, and blacks. Her lofty goals are not shared by her department head, Margaret Campbell (Imelda Staunton), her ex-activist father (Scott Glenn), or her neglected husband, Scott (Patrick Dempsey). Erin's first few days in class are a rude awakening, but a discussion about Hitler and the Holocaust opens unexpected doors and the teacher begins to connect with some of her students, including the hardcore Eva (April Lee Hernandez) and the closed-off Andre (Mario). Erin then hands out composition books and has the teenagers make daily entries. In 1999, those "assignments" were published as The Freedom Writers Diary, which is the source material for the movie.
The bottom line premise - that Erin changes the lives of her students while they change her - lies at the core of every similar movie. But the means are refreshingly different. Erin finds ways to compare Hitler's actions against the Jews to instances of gang violence. Although it may seem to be a stretch, making these similarities gives Erin an entrance into her pupils' world. When she hands out copies of The Diary of Ann Frank, the kids are engrossed. Erin's assignment for them to write letters to Miep Gies (Pat Carroll), the woman who hid Ann from the Nazis, results in a visit from the elderly lady, whom one black student labels as his "hero."
The structure is awkward. The emotional climax of Freedom Writers comes 90 minutes into the film with the arrival of Miep Gies and the life-altering choice made by one of the students as a result. However, LaGravenese keeps things going for 30 more minutes, and Freedom Writers begins to wear out its welcome. There's another emotional moment at the end, but it feels contrived. While the one at the 1:30 mark has a ring of authenticity, the one at the film's end feels like it's all Hollywood.
There's also something strange going on with Erin's pearl necklace. During the first 20 minutes, an inordinate amount of attention is paid to that piece of jewelry. We are sure it's going to be stolen. Then, unexpectedly, this plot element is dropped. Has the necklace been pilfered? Has she stopped wearing it? Is the fact that it isn't stolen proof that the kids aren't thugs? We don't know because the movie doesn't tell us. I'm sure something ended up on the cutting room floor, but what remains in the final version is sloppy. LaGravenese should have either provided a resolution or found a cleaner way to assemble the theatrical print. It's not a big thing but it is annoying.
The film mixes new, young talent with experienced veterans. The best of the former is April Lee Hernandez, who possesses a "firecracker" quality that could lead to bigger roles. Her Eva is part of a high school ensemble but she stands out. Thus far, Hernandez's credits are primarily TV guest spots, but there's no reason she couldn't graduate to more visible parts. (As might be expected the Ms. Gruwell's "freshmen" are often played by actors in their early 20s. Work hours for actual teenagers are too restrictive.) Hilary Swank smiles her way through the early part of the movie then develops a harder edge later in the proceedings. It's nice to see Scott Glenn (who has primarily been doing TV since the turn of the century), although his role is of limited importance. Patrick Dempsey is underused; one suspects he took this role before Gray's Anatomy boosted his image.
Freedom Writers delivers the expected messages about hope and the ability to change one's destiny, and does it in a manner that it is emotionally and intellectually satisfying. This isn't a great movie, but it is effective drama where the big emotional scenes more often feel real than contrived. Through voiceovers, LaGravenese uses passages lifted from the actual students' diaries to provide the framework for the secondary stories (those of the teenagers), thereby lending a ring of authenticity. For those who see it, the movie has a chance to connect. Freedom Writers is superior to what film-goers typically expect from an early January release.
Freedom Writers (United States, 2007)
Cast: Hilary Swank, Patrick Dempsey, Scott Glenn, Imelda Staunton, April Lee Hernandez, Mario, Deance Wyatt
Screenplay: Richard LaGravenese based on the book The Freedom Writers Diary
Cinematography: Jim Denault
Music: Mark Isham
U.S. Distributor: Paramount Pictures