Freedom Writers

Freedom Writers (2007)
Paramount Home Video
Cast: Hilary Swank, Patrick Dempsey, Scott Glenn, Imelda Staunton
Extras: Commentary Track, Deleted Scenes, Featurettes, Still Gallery, Trailer

It is no secret that teachers make up one of the most underappreciated groups of people in America today. The impact that they have on children and the ways in which they help shape the adults their students will become are immeasurable. "Freedom Writers" gives us a look at the true story of one extraordinary teacher who stood up against the odds to reach a class of students who had been all but given up on by the rest of society. Based on a book compiled by journal entries written by the students themselves, the film also takes us into their unforgiving world of crime and intolerance, where murder is an everyday occurrence and no one is spared.

Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank) is a young, optimistic, slightly dorky young woman who is taking her first teaching position at Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach, California. Though it was once a top-tier school, Wilson High's reputation has suffered immensely since an integration program ushered in a mass of inner-city students. Black, Latino, and Asian students from the ghettos now mix with the predominantly white middle-class students, and each minority group fights for space both on campus and in their neighborhoods, creating a veritable race war. The daughter of a staunch civil rights activist, Erin sees her job as a golden opportunity to carry on her father's work by helping people less fortunate than her. Instead, she receives a rude wakeup call on the first day of school when her freshman English class erupts in unruly behavior.

With her spirits partially broken, Erin is rejuvenated when she comes across a drawing by one of the Latino students depicting a black classmate as a racist caricature. She draws comparisons between such behavior and the tactics taken by Nazis to turn the public against Jews, but when she realizes that the students have never heard of the Holocaust, Erin sees that in order to get through to her class she must teach them more than grammar. She tries to get funding for novels with more pertinent themes that might appeal to her students, but the head of the department (Imelda Staunton) refuses her request, saying that the students will never change and are not worth spending more money on. Undaunted, Erin takes two part-time jobs to raise the money herself to supply her class with better resources. Not limiting herself to reading assignments, she also incorporates games, class trips, movie screenings, and guest speakers, all paid for from her own pocket, to engage her students in learning and provide a more worthwhile education than the school is willing to give them.

While the students begin to come around, the school board raises complaints about Erin's disruption of the curriculum and her unorthodox teaching experiments, which are bringing on a wealth of publicity. Her troubles extend to the home front, where her husband (Patrick Dempsey) feels more and more isolated from her as she grows more attached to her students. Her father (Scott Glenn) becomes her only ally in her quest to educate, reassuring her that she is doing the right thing and even participating in some of her class activities. The ultimate test of Erin's struggles, of course, is whether or not the multicultural students can break past their racial biases to embrace each other as a family and find real meaning in their lives.

The first thing that popped into my mind when I saw ads for "Freedom Writers" in January was that it looked remarkably similar to another true-life film about an inspirational female teacher at an inner-city school, "Dangerous Minds" (1995). As it turns out, it is. Both films, it should be said, are laden with clichés of the inspirational-teacher genre that go back to 1955's "Blackboard Jungle" and 1967's "To Sir, With Love." But it is "Dangerous Minds" that this film most closely resembles, not only in its female protagonist, but also in the resistance she receives from the school and in the story's setting (California in the early 1990s). After the comparison, it is my opinion that "Freedom Writers" emerges as the better film.

One reason why "Freedom Writers" succeeds where the other film did not is in its depictions of Erin's teaching methods. Her activities are all conducive in some way to opening her students' eyes to the world around them and utilizing literature and writing as a means of expressing their pent-up emotions. The book that the movie is based on was edited from a series of compositions written by the students for Erin Gruwell's class. As is shown in the film, she gave each student a journal to write their personal thoughts in. It was in these journals that they were able to share with her their backgrounds and the struggles they dealt with everyday just to survive. Trips to museums and reading material like "The Diary of Anne Frank" also play a major role in helping the students to relate their experiences to the rest of the world. One of the most extraordinary scenes in the film involves a visit to the students by Miep Gies (Pat Carroll, in a wonderful cameo), the secretary who helped hide Anne Frank and her family and who has become a hero for the class. By contrast, the methods taken by Michelle Pfeiffer's character in "Dangerous Minds" amount to little more than rewarding her students with candy and trips to amusement parks in exchange for their participation in class.

Another advantage for this film is its gritty depiction of the students' backgrounds. The violence that they witness everyday and their constant fear of being attacked or killed are conveyed honestly and vividly. Much of this is shown from the point of view of Eva (April Lee Hernandez), a Latina gang member whose father has been unjustly taken to prison. She is one of the most obstinate of Erin's students, fiercely proclaiming her hatred for white people and her allegiance to protecting her own. In a strong performance, Hernandez offers a searing portrait of her character. Surprisingly, she is one of only a few professional actors cast in the roles of the students. R&B recording artist Mario is another, doing an equally fine job. The majority of the roles, however, went to non-professionals who had never acted before in order to capture a raw authenticity. These young people are uniformly good, but special notice goes to Jason Finn as Marcus, a boy who lives in the streets after being thrown out by his mother for his gang-related activity.

In the end, the movie really belongs to Hilary Swank, who perfectly captures the idealism and hard-nosed determination of her character. She portrays Erin as a vulnerable but highly intelligent woman who will stop at nothing to get what she needs for her students. Swank's earthiness is key here, and she consistently rises above the story's clichés. Co-stars Patrick Dempsey and especially Imelda Staunton do not escape so unscathed, unfortunately. Their hackneyed roles are simply unworthy of their talents. Staunton's character is so one-note that we can practically guess what she is going to say at every turn. Whatever depth she has is provided by Staunton herself. It is a commendable effort, but the actress deserves better.

Writer-director Richard LaGravenese boasts a rather eclectic résumé of writing credits, which include "The Fisher King" (for which he was Oscar-nominated), "The Ref," "A Little Princess," and "The Mirror Has Two Faces." Though I suppose similarities to other films were inevitable given the territory, it is sad that a writer of his experience could not find a more original approach to this story. His tendency to resort to tried-and-true genre conventions, like the overused montage sequence (complete with the students teaching Swank to dance), ultimately clashes with Erin Gruwell's innovation as a teacher. Although her story seems familiar—something I fault LaGravenese for and not Gruwell herself—it is entertaining and uplifting in its own right.

Paramount Home Video has released "Freedom Writers" in a 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that looks flawless. The sharp, crisp image sports excellent contrast and fine detail. Colors are nicely rendered, bright when they need be and accurate. Skin tones appear natural. No dirt or artifacts hinder the picture.

The audio is presented in alternate Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 English soundtracks, as well as a 5.1 French track. The dialogue is always clear and pushed toward the front. Surround is utilized mostly during the musical sections, as period rap songs are showcased frequently. All of the sound is clean and strong, though this is not the film to test your sound equipment with. English subtitles are provided.

The first special feature is a feature commentary with Richard LaGravenese and Hilary Swank. The two offer quite a bit of information on the production, the real Erin Gruwell and her class, though there are some long gaps toward the end. Swank also mysteriously disappears for about half an hour during this time, but overall this is very informative. Interestingly, LaGravenese points out that the real students did not want him to make a film similar to "Dangerous Minds."

After this, we get 11 minutes of deleted scenes. Much of what we see here is very interesting, particularly a scene in which Erin takes the students to see "Schindler's List," but it is understandable why these scenes were cut. They really offer no new insight, and the film is already quite long as it is.

Three featurettes follow, starting with "Making A Dream," a six-minute look at the creation of the theme song, "A Dream," by recording artists Common and For fans of these artists, this may hold some interest. "Freedom Writers Family" is the most interesting of the three, providing a 20-minute peek behind the scenes with interviews with cast and crew, and even a few words from the real Erin Gruwell. This woman exudes charisma, and it is quite a pleasure to see her and hear her thoughts on the film. "Freedom Writers: The Story Behind the Story" does not really live up to its title. I was expecting a closer look at the real Freedom Writers, perhaps with current interviews with the original students, but instead we just get 10 more minutes of interviews from the cast talking about the characters they play. Fortunately, we also get more of Gruwell.

A photo gallery and theatrical trailer bring a close to a DVD that nicely supports the feature film with some worthy and interesting special features.

Let's face it. We have seen "Freedom Writers" before, and in various decades. Still, Hilary Swank and a cast of talented young actors raise this film above its inherent clichés to distinguish the story of Erin Gruwell and her students. In spite of his missteps, LaGravenese manages to strike up a good balance between the privileged world of Gruwell and the violent lives of her students. Paramount's DVD presentation provides further incentive to give this movie a look. With its bold sincerity, the film is a real crowd pleaser and an inspiring ode to the hard work of dedicated educators everywhere.