English teacher Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank) takes her first job at an LA high school and finds herself in charge of a class of gang members and truants. She refuses to give up on them, using her own money, spare time and The Diary Of Anne Frank to reinvigorate their interest.
Enthusiastic white teacher takes a job educating disillusioned ethnic-minority kids from LA’s gang-torn suburbs and turns a bunch of tetchy no-hopers into students who would make America proud. Veteran screenwriter Richard LaGravenese has hardly picked an original storyline for his first major feature as director, and comparisons with the likes of The Emperor’s Club, Coach Carter and, most obviously, Dangerous Minds are inevitable — and fair.
Like Minds, Freedom Writers is Based On A True Story — in this instance that of novice teacher Erin Gruwell, who sacrifices her time, her personal life, even her style of dress to bring some inspiration to her materially and emotionally deprived class — and, despite its clearly noble intentions, it plays as a vehicle for its female star, this time an ultra-perky Hilary Swank. Swank’s Erin redefines “determined”, unable to take no for an answer and as sweet and wholesome as Anneka Rice dipped in chocolate. To Swank’s credit, she doesn’t try to disguise how downright irritating such qualities can be, and it’s hard not to empathise with her students’ early hostility as she bounces around like a cheerleader on speed. That said, there is true grit here, and the actress brings a depth to a role that could have been blandly one-dimensional. As Erin’s home-life falls apart thanks to her commitment to her cause, there’s an interesting hint at the selfishness inherent in such a single-minded pursuit, however well-intentioned.
Patrick Dempsey, currently riding high on the phenomenal success of Grey’s Anatomy in the States, fares less well as Erin’s husband Scott. It’s hard to see why he took such an underwritten role. Still, the talented young cast (April Lee Hernandez is a standout) playing the students approach their roles with passion and sincerity, and as education is gradually revealed to be an opportunity to grow rather than a chore — Erin encouraging them to keep diaries of their innermost thoughts, these becoming the book on which the film is based — only the hardest of hearts could fail to get caught up in their newfound hopes and ambitions. It’s just a shame that the Hollywood sheen of this MTV-produced film dilutes the impact of a genuinely remarkable story.
Despite solid work from the engaging cast, theres nothing new here to distinguish Freedom Writers as anything beyond a C+.