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Freedom Writers

The first day that Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank) walks into a classroom at Long Beach's Woodrow Wilson High School, she believes she looks professional, perhaps even polished — with a crisp red suit and simple string of pearls around her neck, she evokes the refined glamour of Jackie Kennedy. The problem is that, to her students, she looks more like bait. It's just two years since the Rodney King riots turned entire sections of the L.A. metro area into war zones — the very event that caused Erin to abandon a law career to pursue teaching, believing that the most important battles should be won in the classroom. However, she's ill-prepared for Wilson High in the wake of "voluntary integration," which has sent the best students to other schools, leaving behind a student body that's multicultural but broadly disadvantaged. Erin gets little support from her administrators, who barely conceal their belief that the freshmen in Erin's English class are too dim-witted to understand whatever they may be asked to read. Meanwhile, her husband Scott (Patrick Dempsey) doesn't share his wife's passion for lost causes, and her wealthy father (Scott Glenn) is a jaded liberal who regards L.A.'s underclass as a generation of predatory criminals. They're hardly surprised when Erin's naive enthusiasm fails to earn the respect of her students, who see Room 203 as little more than a nerve-wracking daily détente from the gangland intrigue that surrounds them. But when Erin discovers a racist caricature in her classroom, drawn by a Hispanic student to demean blacks, she re-orients her curriculum to focus on the Holocaust, and specifically The Diary of Anne Frank. She also asks them to begin writing in personal journals, which she will read only if they give her permission. And when she realizes that powerful educational experiences can occur outside of school, she goes over the heads of her superiors, prioritizing her students over the system itself.

Only the most cynical of viewers could describe Freedom Writers (2007) as a "bad" movie — not only does it feature Hilary Swank and a talented supporting cast, but it arrives Teflon-coated by its own earnestness and the true story that inspired it (writer/director Richard LaGravenese began work on the script in 1999 after Erin Gruwell's book The Freedom Writers Project was published, written largely by her students). Instead, it's much easier to note that Freedom Writers is, at times, not very challenging or new, and simply another creditable entry in the "Dedicated Teacher" genre, which traces its roots all the way back to 1955's incendiary Blackboard Jungle and includes such chestnuts as To Sir with Love, Class of 1984, and Stand and Deliver, all of which do their best to remind the moviegoing public that some schoolteachers deserve combat pay. Freedom Writers goes once more into the breach, dear friends, and Erin Gruwell's thoroughly balkanized, captive audience would come as no surprise to anyone living on a steady diet of nighttime television drama. She even offers "If you want to get respect, you've got to give it" as a bit of sage advice to her charges. But the film does manage to avoid the easy tropes of teensploitation (something Class of 1984 delivered to good effect), because it never places Erin in direct peril. Even better, her story is the most interesting — we are introduced to teenagers who have survived broken homes, abuse, and poverty, but we are then asked to see them through the eyes of a young, privileged white woman, who is forced to realize that she doesn't have all the answers, and especially if her "answers" are effort and hard work and commitment, or any other bumper stickers of the college-bound elite. In this part of L.A., young people worry most about their own physical safety, which means they must assume a shared identity (gangs formed around races or clans) that will provide security, expecting only unquestioned loyalty in return. Which, if you think about it, is the antithesis of meritocracy. In this climate, individuals fail — only groups succeed. The blacks, Asians, and Latinos that form the cast of Freedom Writers may suggest at first that the culture clash is race-based, but the second half of the movie manages to offer several inspiring moments around this central idea: that the sort of race-baiting groupthink that brought about the Holocaust is the enemy within, and that education itself can be an effective weapon. It may sound trite, but a simple, sober message, along with the natural momentum of LaGravenese's script, elevates Freedom Writers well beyond what could easily have been a sentimental, somewhat cloying lesson on the history of dedicated teachers in Hollywood movies.

*          *          *

Paramount's DVD release of Freedom Writers offers a solid anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Writer-director Richard LaGravenese and star Hilary Swank offer a commentary, while extras include the featurettes "Freedom Writers Family" (19 min.), "Freedom Writers: The Story Behind the Story" (10 min.), and "Making a Dream" (5 min.), as well as a deleted/alternate scenes reel (11 min.), a stills gallery, and the theatrical trailer. Keep-case.
—JJB



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