Set against a backdrop of interracial, mutually destructive gang warfare, Freedom Writers is a passionately pitched if decidedly formulaic story of idealistic uplift, inspired by a true story in which Long Beach teenagers put their angst to paper in the charged years following the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
Films with hopeful mentors butting heads with cynical and otherwise hardened urban teens number enough to qualify for their own sub-genre, but frequently have a sports component (Coach Carter, Gridiron Gang) or some other novelty of hook, be it something airy like dancing (Take the Lead) or hard-edged like a teacher's retribution (The Substitute, 187).
Freedom Writers, though, tills much more dramatically straightforward ground, and is thus more in the vein of Stand and Deliver, Lean on Me and Dangerous Minds. While its nonfiction roots and the committed presence of two-time Academy Award winner Hilary Swank lends the movie some credibility, Swank is hardly a proven box office draw. Her $32m average as a co-headliner, has benefited greatly from Insomnia and Million Dollar Baby, both of which had additional mitigating commercial factors in Al Pacino and Clint Eastwood, respectively.
Stateside grosses in the $30-45m range seem likely, and international prospects for Freedom Writers seem further limited by its lack of star power. Long-term ancillary value, though, should be solid given proven audience support for this type of inspirational story.
Swank stars as Erin Gruwell, an optimistic recent college graduate whose passion for the classroom is challenged by a roster of freshmen juvenile delinquents who test at the very bottom of their class ' a group comprised predominately of Latino, Asian and African Americans, many caught up in gangs, drugs or other criminal mischief. She's greeted with indifference and even some outright hostility, but Erin throws herself into her job, much to the chagrin of her former activist father (Scott Glenn) and, eventually, her initially supportive husband (Patrick Dempsey).
With a mixture of obstinate insistence, open-eared attention and curriculum flexibility, Erin begins to understand that for many of these kids, merely getting through each day physically and psychologically is challenge enough ' that they are not feral delinquents but teenagers born into a culture of violence that predates them. Using means as disparate as Anne Frank's diary and the music of rapper Tupac Shakur as teaching aids, Erin promotes an ethos of respect, which slowly takes hold. Urging her students that their lives and voices matter, she then gets them to record their feelings in journals, a class project named in homage to the groundbreaking American civil rights activists known as the 'Freedom Riders.'
Richard LaGravenese, whose directorial debut Living Out Loud located a unique energy within almost every scene, trades here in mostly familiar platitudes, and sometimes gets bogged down in didactic functionality, at least as written. He makes up for this by transposing dramatically lit, voiceover journal entries from the real-life students, as well as with a few surprising scenes that bring the movie's real-life pedigree surging to the fore. Among these are a field trip to Los Angeles' Museum of Tolerance, and a heartening visit from the woman who helped shelter Anne Frank and her family.
Swank delivers a dedicated and inviting performance, and a fine, key scene between her and Dempsey ' easy to potentially cut, given its tangential connection ' especially goes a long way in communicating the personal cost, and thus depth, of her commitment.
While LaGravenese for the most part avoids overly maudlin touches, Mark Isham's score swells a bit too heartily during the movie's posed-reading montages, though other collaborations with the RZA prove interesting in their stylistic mash-up.
The most ineffective part of the film ' indeed, at times almost downright embarrassing ' are the performances of Imelda Staunton and John Benjamin Hickey, who are each far too personally emotionally invested and high-strung as Erin's antagonistic and unsupportive peers. More mannered exasperation in lieu of histrionic opposition would have greatly benefited these characterisations.
In respect to the younger cast, April Hernandez and Jason Finn make the most impression ' the former as Eva, a gangbanger and murder witness, the latter as Marcus, a gentle giant who's been bounced out of his home by his mother.
Double Feature Films
April Lee Hernandez
John Benjamin Hickey
Jason Finn Mario