Wonderful for Teens
Richard LaGravenese's Freedom Writers, based on the book The Freedom Writers Diary by Erin Gruwell and the Freedom Writers, jumps out of its formulaic "teacher changes lives" theme more than once to present an enjoyable and thought-provoking film.
The movie deals with teacher Erin Gruwell and her class of students in Long Beach, California. Hilary Swank plays Erin, an idealistic and naive new teacher assigned to a school filled with turmoil. Because the perky young woman feels so charged to change the world on the first morning of her new job, her husband Scott (Patrick Dempsey) can only smile as she leaves the house.
Erin gets to her classroom early to prepare for the arrival of her students. She's dressed to the nines and wearing the pearls her father, Steve (Scott Glenn), gave her. The pearls are a sign of her determination to make a difference in this classroom after being warned not to wear them by her superior Margaret Vail (Imelda Staunton).
Erin’s room remains empty far longer than the other classrooms, and when the kids finally are escorted in, some wearing house arrest anklets, Erin is taken aback. Her introduction and demeanor serve as red flags to the students by indicating she's out of her league, so they immediately start ridiculing her, talking to their friends or picking fights with those of an opposite race.
Never giving up on her kids, Erin learns that Eva (April Hernandez), a Latina, witnessed her boyfriend murdering someone, and that she's facing a trial where she's expected to lie about the shooter. Erin also finds out about Andre (Mario Barrett) trying to adjust to his older brother going to jail for life and to his mother's ill health as well as about Marcus (Jason Finn) being homeless since his mother found him doing drugs and kicked him out. And Erin even discovers that Cindy (Jaclyn Ngan), a Cambodian teenager with a chip on her shoulder that won’t allow her to move forward, spent years in a refugee camp.
Days go by, and Erin holds her ground. When she realizes the kids like stories she asks to use the books on the school's storeroom shelf, but Margaret denies her request. Margaret's words, "They can't read!" only fuels Erin more. She takes an extra job to buy the books herself and then another job to pay for the kids’ field trips.
While visiting the Museum of Tolerance and studying the Holocaust and hatred toward the Jews, the students begin to change, and it’s here that Freedom Writers earns a leg up on its predecessors. As the students read The Diary of Anne Frank, they begin to understand that Anne also lived in a war zone, that racial hatred is not new to their generation, and that it's a horrible thing which can be overcome.
After Erin’s husband leaves her and she's still fighting to get anything for her students, Erin starts to doubt herself. Sitting in her classroom that’s filled with homemade goodies for the teacher/parent conference, she's distraught when not one parent shows up. Unlocking a cabinet where she told students to place any of the journals she gave them to write their stories in if they wanted her to read them, she’s surprised to see every shelf filled.
Erin sits down and begins to read them. While one begins, “It's not going to work. We all know she's going to treat us like everyone else has. The worst part is, I'm pretty sure she thinks she's the one who's going to change us," the content begins to change as the journals grow in page length. Erin understands what so many before -- like those who suffered loss or trauma during 9/11 -- have learned: writing can be healing.
"The kids picked up a pen instead of a gun, and the act of writing saved them," said director Richard LaGravenese. "Erin asked them to write about their wars and battles -- it opened the gates for them to share their lives, which no one had ever asked them to do before."
When the students meet real survivors of the Holocaust and discover Miep Gies, the woman who hid Anne Frank and wrote the book about her, they insist on fundraising to bring her to talk to their class. Their efforts are met with resistance by Margaret, and this forces Erin to go over her head to the school board to plead her case.
The mix of actors and non-actors filling the roles of the students produces heartfelt performances here, as does Hilary Swank in the role of the dedicated teacher.
Freedom Writers is a wonderful film for teens as well as for anyone who thinks some troubled kids can't change.
(Released by Paramount Pictures and rated “PG-13” for profanity and violence.)
Review also posted at www.reviewexpress.com.