Directed by:Richard LaGravenese
With more than a handful of well-received if overly sentimental screenplays to his credit, (The Horse Whisperer, The Bridges of Madison County, The Fisher King, The Mirror Has Two Faces) Richard LaGravenese must have been the obvious choice to turn “The Freedom Writer’s Diary”, (a book by a real-life group of high school students) into a movie. There are abundant traces of other dedicated-teacher films to be found here, (remember To Sir With Love, Stand & Deliver, Dangerous Minds?) but the fact that Erin Gruwell, a determined English teacher in Long Beach did motivate a class of dead-end, alienated teens to share their experiences inside a school system hell-bent on ignoring them makes for an interesting variation on a familiar storyline.
Aided by strong performances from Hilary Swank, (Million Dollar Baby, Boy’s Don’t Cry) and Imelda Staunton, (Vera Drake) this decidedly upbeat tale of accomplishment via persistent struggle bears no small thematic resemblance to last month’s The Pursuit of Happyness, another film with which it shares a particularly neo-conservative worldview of ghetto self-improvement. Since both films represent dramatized versions of real peoples’ lives, is the audience being asked to cheer for the quality of these movies as such or the real accomplishments which lie behind them? The box-office cash registers could care less.
Swank’s career has been a curious one, combining Best Actress Oscars, (for the two films mentioned above) with performances in a dozen or more movies in which she’s ranged from the merely competent (Insomnia) to the god-awful (The Black Dahlia). She doesn’t guarantee box-office like Julia Roberts nor receive the kind of consistent praise for her acting skills as does Meryl Streep, but her choice of roles suggests she’s still capable of surprising audiences. Swank does it here by delivering an utterly feminine educator, someone totally at odds with her gritty boxer in Million Dollar Baby or the sexually troubled cross-dresser of Boy’s Don’t Cry. There was a touching vulnerability to her characters in both those films, but it was of a decidedly masculine sort; here, sporting a string a pearls given to her by a doting father and a wardrobe not out of place on the newest member of The Junior League, she mixes good manners and a warmly appealing smile with the kind of steely determination to succeed that orders on obsession. Another actress might have taken many of the saccharine lines in this script and turned the whole into treacle; Swank keeps Ms. Gruwell both charming and tough-minded.
As Margaret Campbell, the hiss-able department head to whom Swank must report, Imelda Staunton personifies all that’s reprehensible in American public education. Opinionated, condescending and convinced that the nation’s toughest urban high schools should resemble meat processing plants, she epitomizes the kind of thinking that encourages academic failure because it’s dispensed by those supposedly in the business of preventing it. Provide obedience in the class room with no violence on the school grounds and Ms. Campbell’s content; yet innovation, failure to follow the rules and exceptions to the rules are sins to be abhorred and fought with every mean-spirited tool at her disposal. As for fellow teachers, they’re quite content to silently stand by and acquiesce in her decisions. If Freedom Writers differs from its predecessors in this genre, it’s in the degree to which it caustically attacks the strangulation of public secondary education in this country by the very unions pledged to deliver it.
But in the end this is a feel-good movie, notable for the competence of its lead performances and the castigation of its bureaucratically-inclined institutional villain. Seeing it won’t change your life or even make you think, but it will most certainly entertain.
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