The “teacher with a heart of gold” has become such a cliché in American pop culture that it’s amazing most kids aren’t idolizing their remedial English teachers instead of movie stars and musicians. Richard LaGravenese’s “Freedom Writers” manages to transcend any hint of condescension these “inspiring” tales are often full of.
“Freedom Writers” is based on the writings of an astonishing group of Long Beach, Calif., students and their dedicated educator, Erin Gruwell.
LaGravenese begins the film with images of the violent Los Angeles riots of 1992, an event that made the nation aware of the bubbling racial conflicts of inner-city areas and the growing problem of police corruption, as well as the media’s indifferent approach to such a burning problem. This gives the story a sense of immediacy, as so many other films about the lives of working-class people never even hint at the political and social events that inspired their attitudes.
This doesn’t deter Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank) from embroiling herself in the lives of her high school students only two years after the riots. She sees it as an adventure, practically throwing herself on them in the classroom, dodging the insults thrown at her and ignoring the suspicious and spiteful attitudes of her freshman class.
Her students, mostly made up of blacks, Asians and Latinos, all insist that they fight for “their America.” The violence that occurred in 1992 has not stopped, and it has developed into a series of petty gang wars over “territory” and respect. These kids see only skin color, and if it differs from their own, they only see an enemy.
Gruwell feels she needs to educate them on diversity and keep them from being adversaries, so she uses unorthodox teaching methods (often going over the heads of her superiors) to turn them into a family of racial crusaders. She asks her students to write down their feelings and personal stories in journals.
If this sounds corny, it is, but it is done with such sincerity, and with such love and respect for its characters, that the film never feels sentimental. It is smart enough not to portray the teacher as a perfect saint (there are some well-written scenes of her home life, where she has to examine her neglect toward her husband, played by Patrick Dempsey).
But the film also doesn’t use the students as mere plot points. Characters like Eva (April Lee Hernandez), an Hispanic gang member with a resentment toward white people and strong ties to her neighborhood, and Marcus (played with great sensitivity by Jason Finn), a homeless teenager who finds an unlikely hero while reading “The Diary of Anne Frank,” are realistic.
That being said, the film is not without its flaws. The conniving officials who plot to disrupt Erin’s ambitions toward a unified student community are so badly portrayed and so one-dimensionally written that they might as well wear Snidely Whiplash mustaches. Also, the film does take dramatic leaps when it comes to moving the story along.
The students, so unabashedly reserved and resentful toward Erin when they first meet, seem far too eager to want to tell her the darkest passages of their lives. And in the face of all the previous attempts at realism, the film’s conventional Hollywood ending is disappointing. However, these faults don’t mean much in what is ultimately a satisfying and deeply generous film.
“Freedom Writers” was written and directed by Richard LaGravenese.
“Freedom Writers” received three out of four stars.