Movies about inspiring teachers and the troubled kids whose lives they change are as old as the hills; despite the title of Bette Davis’ 1945 contribution to the genre—“The Corn is Green”—even sixty years ago the genre wasn’t exactly fresh.
So it should come as no surprise that the latest example should encourage an extreme case of déjà vu. Inspired, as the tagline always goes, by a true story, “Freedom Writers” is about an enthusiastic but naïve new English instructor at an inner-city high school who awakens the innate talents of her initially disinterested, hostile multi-racial class by requiring them to keep personal journals and introducing them to a wider world they can identify with (specifically, the Holocaust—which she brings alive for them by visits to a museum and having them read Anne Frank’s famous diary). Naturally, despite obstacles that include skeptical, burnt-out colleagues, a dubious dad and violence out on the mean streets, her tactics result in amazing success (and, in fact, have generated a real-life foundation designed to promulgate her techniques and the curriculum that embodies them).
In this case the teacher’s name is Erin Gruwell, and she’s played by Hilary Swank as a dedicated do-gooder whose enthusiasm for her first job at Wilson High School in Long Beach, California is tested by her students’ total apathy and the dismissive attitude of her chairperson (a shrill, totally wasted Imelda Staunton), who hoards textbooks and supplies that she feels would be wasted on these kids, and her colleague, the “honors” course instructor, who bemoans the recent redestricting that brought so many unsuitable youngsters to the campus. But Erin won’t allow herself to be deterred, even though her devotion to the job draws concern from her once-idealistic father Steve (Scott Glenn) and undermines her relationship with her dreamy significant other Scott (Patrick Dempsey). And, of course, it ultimately bears fruit.
As far as these sorts of classroom triumph movies go, “Freedom Writers” isn’t terrible. Swank’s stiff earnestness can get on one’s nerves, but she gains a measure of empathy for Erin over the long haul, and though her campus colleagues are portrayed in the crudest possible terms and her relationship with Dempsey’s Scott is drawn with insufficient feeling, the script does a pretty good job of showing how her work leads to a change of heart on the part of Glenn’s doting father. The transition of the kids from rowdy to dedicated seems, as usual in such movies, awfully abrupt and easy, but the performances by April Lee Hernandez (as the girl inevitably faced with a crisis of loyalty between the truth and her homeboys), Mario and Jason Finn and the others are solid. (One point that shows how the conventions of pictures like this have changed over the years may be noted. In the past, the comic relief would have been provided by some minority kid; now it’s the lone white guy in the group—Hunter Parrish’s doofus Ben—a scaredy-cat who eventually gains acceptance—and confidence—by adopting the cultural practices of his now-majority classmates. The switch panders to today’s young audiences, of course, but from the perspective of the plotting the important point is that how it’s handled is no less formulaic than it used to be, whether the character’s Caucasian, African-American, Hispanic, Chinese, or anything else. The more things change. For what it’s worth, Parrish pulls off the shtick pretty well, though.) And however manipulative it might be, it’s hard not to be moved by a scene in which one of the courageous people who hid the Frank family—Miep Gies, played by Pat Carroll—visits Wilson to converse with the class.
“Freedom Writers” is written and directed decently enough by Richard LaGravenese, and Laurence Bennett’s production design and Jim Denault’s cinematography work together to achieve a convincingly gritty inner-city ambience. But its obvious good intentions can’t compensate for its utter familiarity. After “Blackboard Jungle,” “To Sir, With Love,” “Stand and Deliver,” “Dangerous Minds,” “Coach Carter” and all the other movies along similar lines, a picture has to find some new way to make the point about the value of education in a harsh environment in order to be more than just middling, and this one doesn’t. “Freedom Writers” means well, but unfortunately, to misquote the Scriptures, it’s just a case of old wine in an equally old bottle.