There are certain genres of film that should be retired until they come up with a completely original story. Case and point: The “Inspirational Teacher” genre has been around for decades and recently we have seen one or more of these stories every year, most often in January. “Freedom Writers”, the new film starring Hilary Swank is the latest entry. It is not an original film, but it does manage to tell a moving story.
Erin Gruwell (Swank) arrives at a Long Beach high school ready to teach Freshman English shortly after the Rodney King verdict and riots. Fresh faced and ready to make a difference, she meets with Mrs. Campbell (Imelda Staunton, “Vera Drake”), the head of the English Department, who is bemused by Erin’s eagerness. Her only words of encouragement are to advise Erin to not wear her pearl necklace to class. On her first day, Erin learns she is in over her head; the students segregate themselves staring at classmates of other ethnicities with hatred, they won’t listen, they cut class, it is chaos. After a few abortive attempts, Erin comes upon an idea. She provides blank notebooks for all of the students to write in, to write about anything and everything, as long as they write. She won’t even read the books unless they place them in a locked cupboard. One night, she checks the cabinet and finds all of the notebooks and begins reading, learning the stories of the struggles her students face every day. Encouraged, she tries to come up with ways to bring the students together and to ease the racial tension. Erin’s husband, Scott (Patrick Dempsey) is amazed when Erin announces she is going to take a second, and then third part time job to pay for the supplies she needs to teach. When will they have time for each other? Her father (Scott Glenn), a former activist, is concerned for her safety but soon witnesses the effect she is having. Will she be able to make a change in their lives?
Written and directed by Richard LaGravenese (writer of “The Fisher King”, “The Bridges of Madison County”), I was, frankly, expecting more from “Freedom Writers”. But the film, co-produced by MTV (as was “Coach Carter”, last January’s entry), represents a project that will certainly entertain the network’s core audience.
The power of “Freedom Writers” comes in how Erin gets through to these students. When a student passes around a drawing of another student, emphasizing a racial stereotype, the new teacher looks at the drawing and begins making parallels between it and the Holocaust. She makes a very persuasive argument. As Erin becomes fired up, she talks about the Nazis, their quest for a pure blood race, the internment camps, the invasions of other countries and what all of this meant to Jewish people. Then, one student raises his hand and asks “What was the Holocaust?” Erin asks for a show of hands and only one student has ever heard of the Holocaust, the one Caucasian student in her class.
Hilary Swank does an adequate job of bringing the teacher to life. Ready to make a change, she wants to be a teacher, despite the low salary. When she realizes the high school is more of a battleground, she is surprised but undeterred. If she can reach only one student, it will be worth it. So she begins to put everything into the job. She wants to give the students real books, but Mrs. Campbell (Staunton) wants to protect her inventory so she only lets the students have workbooks. Undeterred, Erin buys them books and takes a part time job to pay for them. Then, she decides she will take them on a field trip. But there’s no money, so Erin takes a second part time job to pay for the trips. Swank portrays the character’s eagerness and drive well. But was there anything else?
Because her entire being is about teaching these students, the most drama derives from her relationship with them. In a film of this nature, some of the students are going to stand out more than others. Early on, Eva (April Hernandez) states she hates Erin, hates all white people, for what they have done. Eva watched her father get arrested by the police, white police, for a crime he didn’t commit. She visits him in prison and attends school as a result of her own probation. I wonder what will happen to her character during the course of the film? Jamal (Deance Wyatt) is destined to become a drug dealer; they approach him all the time offering a lot of money for little work. With little parental supervision – his mother can’t even look at him since his older brother has been jailed- his destiny seems assured. Then, he meets Erin. But will Erin be able to reach him?
Patrick Dempsey pays his movie dues by playing Erin’s increasingly neglected husband, Scott. Dempsey was once a movie star and faded from public view until some entertainment rag coined the term “McDreamy”. Now that he is on a bonafide hit television show, the Comeback gods insist he take a series of supporting roles until he earns his place as Reese Witherspoon or Jennifer Garner’s film boyfriend. Scott is a pretty thankless role; he has to appear at key moments looking annoyed or put upon because Erin is spending so much time with her students. Because what Erin is doing is so good, she has to be ‘martyred’ for her to become a saint. And there is only one way for a young, married woman to become martyred in a Hollywood film. D-I-V-O-R-C-E.
“Freedom Writers” is a perfectly acceptable film. No doubt you will feel for some of Erin’s students, as I did. But given the past work of writer/ director LaGravenese and producer/ star Swank, I was expecting more. A lot more.
Catch it on DVD or cable.