A To Sir, With Love for the hip-hop generation, Freedom Writers is a teacher-turns-around-ghetto-classroom genre film filled with clichés. But it's hard not to root for a dedicated and innovative educator and the ways in which she connects with her class full of at-risk students. A spirited performance by the always watchable Hilary Swank as the motivated teacher helps, but the bottom line is that director Richard LaGravenese's film succeeds primarily because, like the classic Stand and Deliver, it's about abandoned kids learning to be the best they can possibly be.
Based on a true story, the film opens with newbie Erin Gruwell (Swank) showing up for her first day of class at Wilson High in Long Beach, California, wearing a pearl necklace and the kind of conservative suit Laura Bush would put on for state dinners. She's totally out of her depth, and quickly discovers that fact--Gruwell's freshman English class consists of Cambodians, Hispanics and blacks, many of whom are already in gangs, and most of whom hate one another on sight.
After utterly failing to interest her students in anything other than ragging on their peers, Gruwell finally makes a breakthrough when she intercepts a crude racist drawing being passed around the classroom. Outraged, she compares it to the worst anti-Semitic caricatures of the Holocaust, then discovers that her kids don't know what that event is. This leads Gruwell to a two-fold program that has the kids writing in notebooks about their personal experiences, and arranging a field trip to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, where they learn about the history of The Final Solution, and develop an interest in Anne Frank's diary. Quicker than you can say "Tupac Shakur," the students make connections between Frank and their own ghetto lives, and one of the culminating moments in the film shows them raising money to bring Miep Gies (played by Pat Carroll), the Dutch woman who sheltered the Frank family, from Amsterdam to Long Beach to lecture at the school.
All this is wonderful and truly emotional stuff, aided and abetted by a class full of unknown actors who emerge as distinct personalities. And Swank, whose performance gives new meaning to the word "spunky," commands the screen as a driven but naive instructor whose innovations eventually break through to her students.
Unfortunately, Freedom Writers, which is aggressively and flashily directed by LaGravenese, is also blatantly predictable. You just know, for example, that the hard-core Hispanic gang-banger babe we meet in the first scene will turn out to be one of Gruwell's most significant success stories. And the sullen kid in the back row, the one who has been kicked out of the house by his mother, will turn his life around in a major-league way. Even worse, however, is the thankless role given to the great Imelda Staunton (Vera Drake) as Gruwell's department head. She's meant to represent bureaucratic intransigence to the teacher's methods, but the part is so relentlessly negative--even when it's obvious Gruwell is making inroads--that it becomes annoying and unbelievable. On another level, a subplot involving Gruwell's strained relationship with her husband (Patrick Dempsey) is completely unnecessary.
Despite all this, Freedom Writers still scores its points, and it's not hard to see why: Any film about uplift is essentially a work about positive change. And that's something we all want to believe in.