Tag Archives: C

FREEDOM WRITERS

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.

BREAKING AND ENTERING

It’s noble of Anthony Minghella to want to say something about the social and economic disjunction between First and Third Worlds and between the gentry and the struggling poor in western democracies. It’s unfortunate that “Breaking and Entering,” his well-meaning contribution to the discussion, turns out to be a drab, unaffecting combination of unrealistic drama and muddled didacticism, impossible to connect with on either an emotional or an intellectual level.

Jude Law stars as Will Francis, an architect dealing in urban renewal projects who moves into a new office with partner Sandy (Marti Freeman) in the improving but still dangerous Kings Cross area of London, where they intend to transform a run-down neighborhood into a modernistic multiple-use park and development. Will’s aptitude for such architectural renovation is contrasted with his domestic difficulties: his relationship with long-time girlfriend and apartment-mate Liv (Robin Wright Penn) is oddly strained, as is his connection with her daughter Bea (Poppy Rogers), an adolescent suffering from severe psychological problems that make her unruly, unable to sleep and prone to do nothing but obsessively practice gymnastics.

But the real narrative kicks in when the new office is burglarized by young Bosnian refugee and incipient delinquent Miro (Rafi Gavron), whose gymnastic abilities certainly exceed Bea’s: he’s agile enough to scale the walls of the old warehouse in which the office is located, spy through the sunroof to learn the alarm code, and then break through the glass and turn off the alarm so that the gang he works for–headed by his uncle–can strip the place of all its electronic equipment (which they had earlier delivered). The police are unable to find the culprits even after a second break-in, so Will takes it upon himself to stake the place out; and lo and behold he catches Miro in the act and trails him back to his flat in a shabby housing development.

But rather than informing the cops, who include a bunch of simply hard-nosed types but also a tough but more sensitive rebel named Bruno Bella (Ray Winstone), Will instead takes some clothes for mending to Miro’s mother Amira (Juliette Binoche), a seamstress, and seizes the opportunity to look through her son’s room, where he finds his stolen laptop, on which his files remain. (The kid had been told to erase the drive, but became fascinated with Will’s life and didn’t.) He falls into a romance with Amira. She becomes aware of who he is and photographs their trysts as a possible blackmail tool. And ultimately he’s confronted with a choice between letting the matter slide or confirming Miro’s complicity but, in the process, perhaps destroying his own family.

Will is obviously intended to be a symbol of a well-intentioned everyman, a confused fellow with a social conscience who’s acutely aware of his own failings (as well as that of the world around him) and, through his dealings with Amira and Miro, of the miseries they’ve been forced to experience and their seemingly hopeless situation. And Amira is meant to serve as a living example of the result of Balkan brutality, hoping against hope to save her son from the sort of evil that killed his father and ruined his uncle. But the characters never come to life in Minghella’s writing or in the cast’s playing of them. In Law’s laid-back hands Will is such a wispy, reactive sort that his blundering confusion might as well come from innate ineptitude as from ethical distress. And while one can vaguely understand his being drawn to Amira, whose earthy sensuality is in stark contrast to Liv’s Scandinavian coolness, and why she in her desperation might be attracted to any man who showed an interest, the connection between them never really catches fire, not just because Law is so pallid but because Binoche’s exertions don’t get us very deep into her persona, either. Emotionally Miro is pretty much a handsome blank, though Gavron is a charismatic kid, and neither Penn, who’s reduced to furrowing her brow incessantly until a big (but unconvincing) dramatic outburst at the end, nor Rogers, who’s handicapped by the fact that Bea’s traumas are never explicated, can do much with underdeveloped roles. By contrast Winstone and Freeman add a bit of welcome energy to a film that otherwise wilts beneath the director’s conscientious but ultimately undernourished approach. The overall pallid feel is accentuated by Benoit Delhomme’s undistinguished cinematography.

In an odd way “Breaking and Entering” is reminiscent of “12 Angry Men” (1957) in its concentration on a single man struggling to do the right thing about a young man involved in a crime. The setting is much broader, of course, and the romantic element something new. But the real difference is in what it ultimately says. In Reginald Rose’s script, the Henry Fonda character was an obvious symbol of rectitude, not exactly smug but not the unmoored bundle of uncertainty Will is here, and the young man, barely seen, was innocent. Miro, on the other hand, is unquestionably guilty, in the legal sense at least (though all sorts of political questions could be raised). And letting him walk not only frees him, but the whole gang in which he’s but a tiny cog. So what is Minghella trying to say? That social inequities excuse criminality? That our problems are all a matter of nurture, not nature? That it’s better to forgive one troubled youth, even if it means letting a whole bunch of hardened villains go unpunished? Or that even those whom we know to be guilty of wrongdoing can reform if only given the chance–a point apparently made by an odd subplot involving a gregarious hooker (Vera Farmiga, having a grand old time) who drives off in Will’s SUV but returns it in perfect shape, and apparently with a full tank of gas, though he expects never to see it again.

Who knows? And worse, who cares? “Breaking and Entering” is a serious film but a garbled failure.