Double-feature treatment hinders 'Freedom Writers'
The students' story is inspiring, but the film bogs down when the director spends too much time exploring the travails of the teacher.
By Steve Persall
Published January 4, 2007
Freedom Writers features two uplifting true stories, and that's one too many to get its dramatic potential off the ground.
The one that matters is how students in a culturally divided high school learned tolerance and self-worth through literature and creative writing. The story that keeps getting in the way is how their first-year teacher Erin Gruwell juggled a deteriorating marriage and a father skeptical of her career choice.
She had to bear that burden; we shouldn't have to get so involved in it.
Perhaps a documentary approach would have been wiser. The real Erin entered teaching more optimistic than her veteran colleagues. She faced racially diverse and socially stunted students for whom school was an inconvenience. Erin urged them to detail their lives in private journals, inspired by The Diary of Anne Frank, to kindle a spark that resulted in better lives.
Hilary Swank plays Erin, a role that isn't the challenge expected for a two-time Academy Award winner. Freedom Writers might have benefited from less stellar and distracting casting, including Erin's tiresome husband, played by Grey's Anatomy's Dr. McDreamy Patrick Dempsey.
Erin's problems seem petty compared to the daily dangers of inner city adolescence.
Yet director-screenwriter Richard LaGravenese is determined to give both sides equal screen time, and the students suffer. We only get enough details about their gang connections, drug habits and broken families to see them labeled "at risk." After the show, only Eva leaves an impression since April Lee Hernandez makes the most of all the underwritten teenage roles.
LaGravenese is primarily a screenwriter, with such films as The Fisher King, The Bridges of Madison County and Living Out Loud on his resume. It isn't surprising that his adaptation of Erin's book works best when the students' journals - filled with unsparing detail of dreams and conditions foiling them - are the focus of his montage images. However, they're usually followed by classroom skirmishes and faculty resentment as old as The Blackboard Jungle.
Only one scene resonates in memory. The students' interest in Anne Frank leads them to correspond with Holocaust survivor Miep Gies, inviting her to speak at their school. Veteran comedian Pat Carroll, 79, delivers a stirring monologue that visibly impacts the actors playing students and the audience by extension. For a few minutes we're more aware of Erin's remarkable effect than any other time in Freedom Writers.
Otherwise, LaGravenese's film is just an average feel-good TV movie that made it to theaters with the MTV tattoo of approval. As such, you're invited to learn more about the Erin Gruwell Education Project at www.gruwellproject.org. Freedom Writers is simply a public service announcement that will cost eight bucks.
Steve Persall can be reached at (727) 893-8365 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Director: Richard LaGravenese
Cast: Hilary Swank, Imelda Staunton, Scott Glenn, Patrick Dempsey, April Lee Hernandez, Mario, Kristin Herrera, Jason Finn
Screenplay: Richard LaGravenese, based on the book by Erin Gruwell
Rating: PG-13; profanity, brief violence, mature themes
Running time: 123 min.
[Last modified January 3, 2007, 15:25:33]
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