[Screen It]

(2007) (Hilary Swank, April Hernandez) (PG-13)

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Drama: An idealistic young teacher must overcome various obstacles as she tries to get her troubled students to write about their lives and thus change their attitudes about themselves and others.
It's 1994 and Erin Gruwell (HILARY SWANK) has just arrived at Long Beach's Wilson High School as an idealistic freshman year teacher. Others there are not as optimistic, such as honors teacher Brian Gelford (JOHN BENJAMIN HICKEY) who thinks the school's recent integration has ruined its reputation and standing, while their boss, Margaret Campbell (IMELDA STAUNTON), doesn't want to see any changes to the current curriculum. That includes not distributing certain textbooks to any classes containing so-called troubled kids for fear of the materials being damaged, lost, or stolen.

Erin's husband, Scott (PATRICK DEMPSEY), is initially supportive of her decision to try to make a difference in the lives of troubled kids including Eva (APRIL HERNANDEZ), Andre (MARIO), Marcus (JASON FINN), Sindy (JACLYN NGAN), Jamal (DEANCE WYATT) and the lone white kid, Ben (HUNTER PARRISH). Yet, her one-time civil rights advocate father, Steve (SCOTT GLENN), thinks she's wasting her time trying to rehabilitate, let alone teach any of them.

Determined to prove all of them wrong, and seizing on some racism-based humor passed around the class, Erin decides to rethink her strategy. That not only includes unconventional class activities, but also getting the students to read "The Diary of Anne Frank" in hopes that it will prove to them that they're not as different from each other as they think and that they're not alone in facing adversity in their lives.

Encouraging the students to write their own journals, Erin tries to make a difference in their lives, all while facing various personal and professional obstacles that stand in her way.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
While the portrayal of non-white characters in Hollywood films has clearly gotten better since the advent of the cinema, there's no denying certain tried and true character types and storylines will always pop up now and then on the big screen. One is the well-documented "magic negro" syndrome where a bunch of white folks are having some sort of issue in their lives and along comes a black character who serves to be the catalyst to solve whatever their problems may be.

The other, which possesses a more catchy-sounding phrase courtesy of some African-American reviewers I know, is that of the "mighty whitey" character. They're the Caucasian personas who usually arrive in some poor or otherwise desolate and/or needy locale, and serve to inspire the black, Hispanic or some other ethnic types who, for reasons usually unknown, can't figure that out on their own.

Such films often involve teachers or coaches who arrive as outsiders and must contend with overcoming the status quo as well as their own personal demons, if you will, although the latter usually don't match those of the kids. One need only think of offerings such as "Dangerous Minds" or "Blackboard Jungle" as examples of such characters and their related storylines.

You can now add "Freedom Writers" to that list. The tale of Erin Gruwell who arrives at Wilson High School several years after the 1992 L.A. riots and manages to inspire a bunch of unmotivated kids to rethink their attitudes and behavior about who and what they are and/or want to be, the film does earn a few waivers for being based on a true story.

Nevertheless, and thanks to writer/director Richard LaGravenese, the film follows the standard Hollywood trajectory and formula of such tales. The teacher -- played with believable enough conviction by Hilary Swank -- is seen as an outsider, and faces both immediate and eventual resistance from people all across the board.

That's not only from her new charges (including April Hernandez), but also the administration (most notably a far too over-the-top Imelda Staunton) that doesn't like any sort of boat rocking, as well as her live-in boyfriend (Patrick Dempsey) who eventually tires of her time away from home. Even Scott Glenn -- as her father who once supported such social causes -- now sees such kids as low-life troublemakers who aren't worth the effort.

Thus, Erin's indirect quest is to prove all of them wrong, and she plans to do that by making the students open up and realize they're not as different from each other or live lives as hopeless as they think. And she does that by getting them to read "The Diary of Anne Frank," a tactic that gets them to start their own diaries, devices that let them express their pent-up feelings (thus the film's title).

While about as formulaic and predictable as they come (even including the apparently obligatory scene where all of the students must dance in class together), the film mostly works within its genre confines, and does so despite a number of problems. Chief among them is having too many students and not enough time to tell their respective tales, thus giving most of them cursory at best treatment.

Considering we've seen this sort of tale before, it might have been wise to move Swank's character out of the spotlight and focus more on those kids and their stories. After all, it's during "confessional" moments (reading from their diaries or speaking off the cuff) that the film delivers its most powerful, emotional moments (specifically from one kid who comes out of the woodwork to comment on the experience of being evicted).

Others have equal if not quite so moving stories of woe, but the filmmaker -- following the playbook for such pics - instead focuses more time on the teacher and her interaction with her husband, father, and the requisite villains, the administrators who don't see eye to eye with her proposed changes.

If not for our familiarity with this sort of story -- and nitpicky things such as why it seems the teacher only has one class of these students who spend hours per day with her, and how most of them quickly change their behavior -- this would be a compelling story of dedication and perseverance in making a difference in the lives of others.

Notwithstanding the "true life" aspect, "Freedom Writers" -- which does get better as it proceeds -- is somewhat like attending the same class you took last year, and the one before that and so on. It might work, but the lack of novelty means it isn't as moving as it might have been with a different and more creative and/or imaginative approach at telling its tale. The film rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed November 14, 2006 / Posted January 5, 2007

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