- The Washington Times - Friday, January 5, 2007

“Lean on Me.” “Dangerous Minds.” “Coach Carter.” “Take the Lead.” To the already crowded genre of movies about idealists trying to effect change in inner-city schools add one more: Richard LaGravenese’s “Freedom Writers.”

It tells the true-life tale of Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank), a bright-eyed white woman who enters Long Beach’s Wilson High School as an English teacher in the wake of the Rodney King riots. She encounters a diverse but segregated community so racially charged, hostile and potentially combustible that she likens it to Nazi Germany.

Without the support of her administrators (played by Imelda Staunton and others) and the school system, which views teenagers more as threats than scholars, Miss Gruwell devises her own methods for reaching students. She begins educating them about other young people who’ve endured wars, like Anne Frank, and simultaneously gives them journals so that they can tell their own stories, thus, giving each person a voice and a sense of value.

The now-empowered class nicknames itself the “Freedom Writers” (inspired by civil rights protestors the Freedom Riders) and publishes a book of collected writings. Meanwhile, the news media latches onto the educator’s plucky struggle, affording her an even bigger platform for presenting her positive message.

Like other inner-city school dramas, the film has several pivotal elements: a triumphant teacher-wins-over-students-and-community plot, some Hollywood star power to bring in the bucks, a bassy undercurrent of hip-hop tunes to amp up the urban quality and propel soundtrack sales, and a feel-good ending to make us feel better about the state of urban education.

But does “Freedom Writers” bring anything new to the classroom?

True, Miss Gruwell’s unique methods are novel, and her life story is inspiring. Unfortunately, “Freedom Writers” rubs some of the luster out of the original events by giving them that old Hollywood polish. Did it really just take one in-class game to win the kids over? Did the most hostile student really become the teacher’s pet?

The film fails to electrify us the way the genre’s best examples — such as “Lean on Me” — have. Perhaps the Erin Gruwell character says it best: “My badness.” In other words, “Oops.”

Miss Swank (who showed her support for the movie by also signing on as an executive producer) handles her role just fine, but somehow it feels like she’s wearing a cotton jersey dress when she’s already made our jaws drop with her navy-blue Guy Laroche gown with that oh-so-low back.

Similarly, Patrick Dempsey, who plays a small role as her attention-starved husband, doesn’t reach any new heights except with his hair. (Time for a trim, McDreamy.)

Some of the film’s young actors fare better, particularly April Lee Hernandez, who brings a quiet fire to her performance.

It’s nice that this glitzy work up may expose Miss Gruwell’s positive message to a wider audience, but the documentary format may have preserved the grittiness of the real story a bit better.

**

TITLE: “Freedom Writers”

RATING: PG-13 (some violent content, mature themes and language)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Richard LaGravenese. Based on the book by the Freedom Writers with Erin Gruwell.

RUNNING TIME: 123 minutes

WEB SITE: www.freedomwriters.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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