A film review by Craig J. Koban
2007, PG-13, 123 mins.
Erin Gruwell: Hilary Swank / Scott: Patrick Dempsey /
Steve Gruwell: Scott Glenn / Margaret: Imelda Staunton /
Eva: April Lee Hernandez / Andre: Mario / Marcus: Jason Finn Written and directed by Richard LaGravenese
Erin Gruwell: Hilary Swank / Scott: Patrick Dempsey / Steve Gruwell: Scott Glenn / Margaret: Imelda Staunton / Eva: April Lee Hernandez / Andre: Mario / Marcus: Jason Finn
Written and directed by Richard LaGravenese
On many levels, FREEDOM WRITERS represents one of my most hated of film genres: The inspirational, inner city high school melodrama where a plucky, resourceful, and determined teacher will instruct the divergent students on how to live with one another and respect themselves.
Let’s face it - these films have been done to death in the last few years, seeing endless permutations of the basic formula. Oftentimes, sports are thrown into the mix for good measure (as was the case with last year’s woefully derivative and perfunctory COACH CARTER).
All of these films have the same basic ingredients and suffer from an affliction that I like to refer to as DEAD POET’S SYNDROME – or DPS. I coined this name from the unfairly cherished coming of age educational film, DEAD POET'S SOCIETY. You may remember that Robin Williams starred in the film as a literary teacher that used highly questionable techniques in and out of the classroom, largely against his colleagues’ approval. He taught a ragtag group of students about life through poetry. The boys were eventually won over by Williams’ congenial charm and irreverence. In the process, they grow from boys to men and dealt with the fact that their beloved instructor could get the boot by his bosses. Those upper school bosses felt that Williams used “inappropriate” teaching styles.
In short, The DPS films have these key elements:
- Students that hate each other, but grow to understand and like one another through their teacher.
- A young and resourceful teacher that will rock the educational status quo to get the students to bind together.
- Angry and vindictive colleagues of the “resourceful teacher” with a heart of gold that reveal their intense disdain for the teacher's tactics in the classroom.
- Some sort of a hearing that calls into question whether or not the “resourceful teacher” should be allowed to continue to teach the students who – by the end of the film – love the figurehead that they once hated.
To a large degree, FREEDOM WRITERS represents yet another effort by Hollywood to cash in on this formula of downtrodden inner city students and an outsider teacher that will give them hope. The DPS symptoms are all over this film like white on rice. We have the young, idealistic teacher that thinks she can save these kids from their lives of misery and despair. We have a relative cross section of degenerate gang youths that all despise their teacher trying to be empathetic with them. We also have fellow teachers at the school that don’t take kindly to the new teacher’s willingness to use questionable techniques and to willfully avoid the curriculum. We have the obligatorical spouse figure that complains that his wife is “married” more to her class. Finally, we have scenes where the kids slowly grow to like and appreciate their teacher’s instruction and – inevitably – are able to overcome differences and develop into self-actualized individuals.
It’s the overwhelmingly mechanical and preordained nature of FREEDOM WRITERS that sort of undermines its effectiveness. Other inner city high school films have taken the road-less-traveled approach and have emerged as superior entertainments (like last year’s wonderful HALF NELSON, which I thought was one of 2006’s best films). Unfortunately, FREEDOM WRITERS is just one more in a seemingly endless stream of good natured, noble, but disposable genre films that are easily watchable and even more easily forgotten. It is also very teen centric (it was produced by MTV films, which essentially means that it will be a sanitized and fairly clean look at inner city life that only a PG-13 film can muster). Films about troubled youth should be hard-edged and unflinching. FREEDOM WRITERS seems too afraid of pushing volatile buttons. As a result, it often lacks emotional impact.
Perhaps the film’s biggest sins are that it preaches too hard, tries too much to jerk tears from viewers’ eyes, and it paints its saintly teacher as such a unyielding…well…saint that you kind of have to scratch your head and remind yourself that the film is based on a real story. At times, the film is able to generate genuine, heartfelt emotions and some of the scenes with the teacher and individual students are strong, but FREEDOM WRITERS suffers from too much derivativeness. The film has moments of inspiration, but it is its penchant for not going against the genre status quo that is its undoing. Instead of being bold and original with the material, it is just too familiar and routine.
Another thing: Why must we have such unnaturally cartoonish villains in the form of opposing teachers in films like this? Okay, we get the point that the teacher in question – played well by Hilary Swank – is a Mother Theresa figure in the classroom that has idealism up the yin-yang. But, c’mon, do her colleagues really need to be that antagonistic towards her tactics and methods? One of the schoolteachers is such a hotheaded, cast iron b-i-t-c-h that she seems too mean-spirited to be taken seriously. Also, how many more times are we going to have to be subjected to the angry spouse who suffers from jealousy that his wife takes her job more seriously than her marriage. Oy vey.
The film takes place shortly after the L.A. riots of 1992 when – as the title cards pain to point out – when racial unrest was at its worst in America (Really? Even more so than during the Civil Rights Movement??). Erin Gruwell (Swank) swoops in for a moral rescue as a crusading new teacher that thinks she has want it takes to make some inner city kids believe in the power of education to change their Dangerous Minds for the better. She chooses to work in a forced integrated school dominated by four major groups: whites, Latinos, Cambodians, and blacks.
Her idealism is marred by her complete naivety. After a few days she is shocked by how little the students respect her. She also has an obstacle in the form of the English department head, Margaret Campbell (overplayed by Imelda Staunton) who believes – yikes – that inner city kids don’t give a darn about learning, so why spend money on books and materials for their education. Erin’s only emotional recluse is with her husband (Patrick Dempsey, doing what he can with an underwritten part) and her father (Scott Glenn, also decent in a marginal role).
The film trots by with incredible and lethargic predictability. Erin is able to slowly win over her students’ affection and creates an environment for them to really learn, often to the chagrin of her colleagues and husband, the latter whom feels she spends too much time with her students. However, I will give FREEDOM WRITERS props for the manner with which Erin engages her students. First, she buys them all composition books and tells them that they can write whatever they desire once a day in them. One day is a real turning point for them all. A classroom prank segues into a discussion of Hitler and the Holocaust. Astoundingly, Erin discovers that most of her student have no clue about Hitler’s planned agenda with the Jews.
Seeing this as an opportunity, Erin decides to enlighten her students to a frank lesson on The Holocaust and to open their own eyes about racial tolerance. Yes, every similar film has sequences of the teacher “opening” their students’ eyes, but at least FREEDOM WRITERS has a unique method buried within it’s story. Erin is able to allow her students to find correlations to Hitler’s actions to modern gang violence. Certainly, the comparisons are a bit foolhardy, but the point that she is trying to enforce in her kids is clear. She is really able to tap into their minds when she buys them all copies of THE DIARY OF ANN FRANK (the school has no funds to buy more books, so Erin pulls off two other part time jobs in order to fund her own curriculum). The kids eat up the stories of the diary, so much so that one of the kids thinks they should all write letters to Miep Gies, who hid Anne from the Nazis, and ask her to come and speak at the school. This will involve considerable time, effort, and fund raising, which Erin and her students do, much to the disappointment of Erin’s husband. Can ya blame the guy? At one point, he rightfully asks her, “So, you’re working at two part-time jobs outside of school to support the resources at your school job?”
The strongest moments in the film are when Erin takes them to Holocaust museum and when Gies (Pat Carroll) does come to lecture to the class, during which one student tells her that she is an inspiration to him. The scene of her speech to the classroom is memorable and potent, as is Erin’s rather creative manner of using history’s biggest atrocity to engage her students. Unfortunately, everything framed around this is too mournfully routine and hokey. Even more dubious are the little details, like how Erin is such a beacon of smiles and hope, even in the midst of gang violence and fisticuffs occurring in her class. Call me a pessimist, but I am afraid that no teacher in an inner city school could ever maintain the consistent aura of positivism and happiness that this women does in the film. Yes, FREEDOM WRITERS is rooted in reality, but the film lacks realism. It cries out that its ultimate aim is for veracity, but instead in labors by Hollywood norms and conventions.
Hilary Swank, who also executive produced the film, is in fine form as the teacher figure, but this character has graced the screen before in countless incarnations. Her work here is nothing compared to her riveting portrayals in films like MILLION DOLLAR BABY and BOYS DON’T CRY, but it’s serviceable here. Some of the supporting performances in terms of the student characters are also fine, especially by April Lee Hernandez who plays a young woman that has to make some ethical choices that could change her life. Scott Glenn has some nice scenes with Swank and is an engaging and pleasant presence in the film. Patrick Dempsey has a few tender moments as the frustrated husband, but he plays more of a plot element than a fully realized character.
FREEDOM WRITERS has a noble heart of gold. It has some legitimate things so say about the inner city school curriculum and how some school boards are doing everything in their power to subjugate kids out of a quality education. Also, the manner that the motivational teacher enlightens her beleaguered kids is also ingenious. Yet, FREEDOM WRITERS never attains a status of anything beyond an artificial, repetitive, and formulaic motivational inner city high school melodrama that – let’s face it – we’ve seen far too much of already. The film has respectable talent aboard and Hilary Swank brings a plucky earnestness to her part, but FREEDOM WRITERS adds nothing new to the DANGEROUS MINDS/DEAD POET’S formula. No amount of good intentions can trump a film’s lack of credibility and sense of redundancy. I guess its unflattering to see grade-A, multiple Oscar winning talent occupy a film that is the equivalent to week old leftovers that no one wants to eat again. The film simply has too much heart and not enough freshness.