Paramount is getting their over used plot lines out of the way early this year with the latest teacher-inspires-students fare, "Freedom Writers." Since this style of movie is practically a genre, there are clearly right ways and wrong ways to do it and "Freedom Writers" probably does it the right way.
The story is, of course, based on a true one but in this case there are actual writings to back it up in the form of "Freedom Writers" the book, a collection of the essays the troubled students wrote while in Erin Gruwell's (Hillary Swank) class. This allows for a surprising closeness and depth to every student because their portrayals go far beyond the traditional cookie cutter images of inner city youth represented in lesser films. Director Richard LaGravenese uses these writings to bring out the characters and celebrate the similarities and differences that make each student who they are.
Unfortunately he also falls back on the clichés of the genre all too often, repeatedly bashing us over the head with juxtapositions between the students that show the viewer that they're all really the same, especially in an early montage that cuts between Hispanic Eva and Cambodian Sindy as they are preparing for a night out in the exact same fashion. The blatant attempt to show the similarities between the two, along with making the solitary white student in the class comic relief for the entire film, rings terribly false.
Swank on the other hand comes to the film with the type of simple earnestness that makes you wonder if she knew that there had been a million movies like this that came before. Her persuasive portrayal of Gruwell in both her teaching and personal life adds an extra layer that is missing from many teacher/student relationships in movies. Gruwell's use of the Holocaust to persuade the teenagers to learn is not only a great idea but grounds the film itself in a background that connects the entire audience to the students problems, something that is often a problem for those outside of troublesome situations.
Still by the end of the film, it's just one more class that changed and thousands of others in the United States public school system that didn't. "Freedom Writers" doesn't ignore this though, reminding us that this was the work of one individual teacher not the school and that real sweeping change is not coming any time soon. It's an interesting feeling, and one worth having, to leave the theater after a movie like this and not feel good for the students in the class but feel bad for the ones that weren't.