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January 15, 2007

Freedom Writers

Diaries of Dark Introspection

Hillary Swank Portrays L.A. High School Teacher Erin Gruwell
By Cole Smithey

Freedom_writers_ver3 Poised as a diatribe on the abysmal state of the American education system and gang violence around Long Beach, California, "Freedom Writers" is based on the true story of neophyte high school teacher Erin Gruwell (Hillary Swank). Gruwell broke with curriculum convention to inspire her troubled students during the mid-'90s. Writer/director Richard LaGravenese milks audience empathy with so much voice-over narration that he may as well have recorded the story as a books-on-tape product. Swank's starry-eyed version of Erin Gruwell assigns her students to keep diaries about their lives. She teaches lessons about the Holocaust via "The Diary of Anne Frank" to give her students a sense of place and decency. Compared to a film like "Boyz N The Hood," this is cinema activism lite. Imelda Staunton ("Vera Drake") gives an outstanding performance as the school's status-quo-keeping principal whose privately racist agenda is eaten away at by Gruwell's profound efforts with her class. In 1999 Erin Gruwell published the students' work as "The Freedom Writers Diary."

Hillary Swank is credited as a producer, and it seems the Oscar-winning actress chose the film as a leading-role showcase in spite of its formulaic sappiness. Even with an unsupportive husband (Patrick Dempsey), and rigid school board protocol, Swank’s character comes off as condescending when she should be seen as a fighter. LaGravenese’s cookie-cutter screenplay doesn’t help Swank’s cherry-pie portrayal. Thinly sketched subplots teeter toward sentimentality at every turn.

Most disagreeable is the way the Holocaust is referenced as being somehow synonymous with the violent tribulations of the African American, Hispanic, and Asian students’ lives outside of Gruwell’s unifying classroom. The story hangs on a payoff scene during a school event when Miep Gies (Pat Carroll), the woman who helped hide the Frank family, visits Gruwell’s class to answer questions and share her experiences. Because we never hear Gruwell lecture on how she views a connection between the Holocaust and the violent lives of her students, the audience has little context for the pivotal scene other than to sense an abstract similarity between WWII and Los Angeles’ gang violence. There's something very not right here.

LaGravenese ("The Horse Whisperer") has a tendency to sanitize every scene. When he hits what he perceives as the audience’s emotional sweet spot, a tear begins to form, the release feels unjustified. The film succeeds in an incidental way by raising issues, however vaguely, about the ways scholastic public policy conspires against all students in American public schools. However, "Freedom Writers" is a movie that pretends to be much more than it is. There isn’t a second of immediacy in the picture. Its theatrical tone and shortcut plotting make it a blankly rewarding entertainment experience. Mediocity abounds.

Rated PG-13. 123 mins. (C) (Two Stars)



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