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January 4, 2007 |

By Phillip Stephens | Film | January 4, 2007 |

The inspirational teacher-reaching-out-to-youths films almost comprise an entire sub-genre, having established a standard set of tropes and arcs particular to their type. From Blackboard Jungle to Stand and Deliver to Dangerous Minds, these films are almost always vague recreations of true incidents, often involving unorthodox instructors touching a group of ne’er-do-wells, and so it remains with Freedom Writers, the inevitable success story and feel-good movie meant to give audiences the tearfully affecting sweetness they so desperately want.

Set during the racial turmoil of post-Rodney King Los Angeles, Freedom Writers is the story of Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank), a first-time teacher and liberal bastion arriving at an integrated high school to teach a group of misfits that the system has all but given up on. From the beginning, Gruwell is presented as an incomparably (almost weirdly) sweet person, completely alien to the hardened, violent, and racially divided students and begging for a disillusionment that never really comes. Erin goes through the ritual hazing — at first she’s despised and resented for her efforts, but her students eventually warm to Gruwell as she strives to give them the respect the school system does not.

The transformation of Gruwell from loathed outsider to welcomed mentor is not particularly dramatic. There’s a confrontation between her and the students over racism that is meant to bridge the divide, but the change is too sudden and, given that Gruwell’s mannerisms and steadfast pleasantness never falter, difficult to understand. Gruwell’s character as a whole is more enigmatic than anything else; her earnestness and zeal are merely taken at face value, not explained through the story as anything other than liberal good-nature — she takes on two additional jobs to finance her school projects when the administration will not and selflessly devotes her time to the students, at great personal cost. Swank plays this role believably, but it’s just never that clear why Gruwell is trying so hard.

Aside from predictability, Freedom Writers suffers from implausible villains. It’s always necessary to have a foil in these types of movies, usually a particularly difficult student or jaded bureaucrats intent on staunching any unorthodoxy. Here it’s the latter in the form of two teachers (Imelda Staunton and John Hickey) who oppose Gruwell’s improvisational methods with such virulence that they become almost cartoonish.

Freedom Writers is exactly the feel-good, inspirational, faux-true tale it promises to be, and it isn’t half bad at what it does — for my part, I was successfully manipulated into happiness by this time-tested formula. But in the end, I was never under any doubts that it was a movie I was watching; in spite of the film’s claim and connection to real events and people, the ones I saw onscreen were caricatures that fell far from the authenticity that might have made them significant. And when a film concerning the same subject matter can be as good as Half Nelson, this supposedly true story did something it couldn’t afford to do; it rang false.

Phillip Stephens is the lead critic for Pajiba. He lives in Fayetteville, AR.

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