3 stars (out of four)
Hilary Swank gives a powerhouse performance as a maverick high school teacher in "Freedom Writers," an often gripping and sometimes even inspiring film drama taken from the real-life story of Erin Gruwell. The first-time freshman English teacher at Wilson High School in Long Beach, Calif., turned a rough classroom situation into a local educational triumph.
Like Erin Brockovich in the movie made from that real-life story, this California Erin offers the type of role that actresses love to play--especially Oscar-winning actresses with artistic ideals and high ambitions like Swank. And who can blame her? Erin is smart, dedicated, warm-hearted, a battler for the rights and potential of her mostly lower-class students, and a woman who defies grievous personal problems and nasty office intrigue to kindle the flame of knowledge among her white, black, Asian and Latino kids.
In her first go-round as a teacher, after abandoning a seemingly sure-fire career as a lawyer, shepherded by her successful attorney dad Steve (Scott Glenn), Gruwell takes over a class of hard-case students who at first ignore or ridicule her, while working with cynical or contentious colleagues who think that teaching these kids is a waste and mock her for wearing pearls to a school that needs security patrols.
But Gruwell breaks through, giving them a taste for "The Diary of Anne Frank" and Homer's "Odyssey," even though their own lives are riddled with broken homes, turf wars, drive-by shootings and personal tragedy--and even though many of them have lost at least one friend to gang violence.
Out of her efforts came "The Freedom Writers Diary," an anthology of journals and personal writings done in Gruwell's class. These memoirs convey the tension and danger--and sometimes overwhelming sadness--of the students' lives, and bits of them are used in voice-overs during the film.
The film's emotional high comes when Gruwell (as it happened in life) brings to her class--all the way from the Netherlands--one of the main characters in Anne Frank's diary: Anne's friend and protector, Miep Gies, now an elderly woman played by Pat Carroll. If this were fiction, the average screenwriter probably would have dismissed that scene as unbelievable--but it's precisely why Gruwell's story is worth telling.
Swank makes the role her own, and she helps her fellow actors shine, too, including Patrick Dempsey as her initially supportive but eventually alienated husband, Scott, and Imelda Staunton (the great "Vera Drake") as her most persistent foe at school--as well as younger actors like April Lee Hernandez as gang-girl Eva, Mario as street guy Andre, and Deance Wyatt as nasty class-clown Jamal.
If "Freedom Writers" weren't based on a true story--and if some of its most amazing scenes, such as the Miep Gies visit, weren't taken from life--it might be damned as sentimental and improbable. But writer-director Richard LaGravenese (who scripted "The Fisher King" for Terry Gilliam and "The Bridges of Madison County" for Clint Eastwood) can mix reality, sentiment and high drama with a balance that catches the story's raw anxiety and heartfelt connections.
Directed and written by Richard LaGravenese; based on the book "The Freedom Writers Diary" by the Freedom Writers with Erin Gruwell; photographed by Jim Denault; edited by David Moritz; production designed by Laurence Bennett; music by Mark Isham, will.i.am; produced by Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher. A Paramount Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 2:03. MPAA rating: PG-13 (For violent content, some thematic material and language).
Erin Gruwell - Hilary Swank
Scott Casey - Patrick Dempsey
Margaret Campbell - Imelda Staunton
Steve Gruwell - Scott Glenn
Eva - April Lee Hernandez
Andre - Mario