Pros: Acting, dialogue, ability to connect with the audience.
Cons: Pacing, sub-plots.
Freedom Writers was an interesting but somewhat sluggish look at High School life in Long Beach, California following the 1994 riots. The determined teacher faced with incorrigible students and misfits has been done a hundred times before. Sidney Poitier comes to mind in this role in his 1967 film To Sir, With Love. You could say that Dangerous Minds and Lean on Me were take-offs on this genre as well. This story has been done on the football field, in the swimming pool and in the dance hall. You name it…many incarnations of this story have been done. One interesting thing about Freedom Writers is the fact that it’s based on a true story. In evaluating this movie, I don’t see it so much as how original the plot is as much as how much it held my interest.
Freedom Writers tells the story of an idealistic teacher, whose father (Scott Glen) passed on his Civil Rights Era idealism. She passes at the opportunity to become a lawyer in order to try and intervene with students who are at risk of eventually entering the Justice system. The Teacher, Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank) quickly finds out that idealism doesn’t restore order in an unruly classroom. Gruwell is faced with the challenge of connecting with her students while faced with an Administration that simply wants her to warehouse her students. Attempts to get funding or proper books are met with bureaucratic resistance, so Gruwell takes on extra jobs to pay for her materials. Lessons on the Holocaust help draw correlations to the struggle each student faces, helping each of them to come to grips with their individuality. There are minor sub-plots that play out during the film, most of them very predictable.
The dialogue in Freedom Writers is fairly decent. In order to demonstrate Gruwell’s lack of street cred, they slip in a few street slang errors, like “my badness.” There are two dozen students in Gruwell’s class, each with his or her own story. There are cliques at first, which are made up of Cambodians, Hispanics, Blacks and the lone White boy. There are a few sub-plots involving the students that play out as part of the broader story. The major sub-plot was weak and predictable. However, the back-stories that we are given when exposed to the Journals kept by each of the students provide interesting diversions from the main story. The use of Journaling to introduce us to the characters and provide dimension and character development was an interesting approach, even if it may have been based on the actual events. It allowed for character development without getting bogged down in a bunch of tired stories that don’t have time to fully develop. Instead we get snippets of life experiences that provide some insight without requiring plot lines to develop. The writers also managed to evoke a range of emotions from the audience without using cheap gimmicks. The writing created some gaps that made the pacing slow at times, but overall, the dialogue and plot were strong for a concept that has been done to death.
The acting in this film was one of Freedom Writers’ strengths. I happen to like Hilary Swank and thought she was the right combination of vulnerable and aggressive. Her ability to transition from an idealistic rookie to a tough teacher who earns the respect of her students was interesting to see unfold. She handled the transition like a pro. Her naiveté was not overdone, which can be a delicate balance. Scott Glenn played Gruwell’s estranged husband…one of the sub-plots I could have done without…that relationship seemed superficial and unexamined. April Hernandez filled the part of Eva (pronounced A-VA) Benitez. Hernandez was excellent, although she was involved with another very predictable plot line. Mario played Andre Bryant. His thuggish portrayal was believable and tastefully done. It would be easy to ham up the street stuff to a point where it’s laughable. Mario did a great job of keeping it real. Deance Wyatt was another actor that I felt did an exceptional job of keeping his character believable. Wyatt’s portrayal of Jamal Hill provided a little bit of range. Because of the number of students and faculty, the cast was very large. As a whole, each of the cast members delivered small pieces of the puzzle to create an overall performance that was enjoyable.
Freedom Writers was rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America. There are a couple of drive by shootings in this movie that are show a bit of blood but are a far cry from the blood and guts I’ve seen in other films. The gunshots are actually pretty tame by Hollywood standards. There is some strong language in this film but it is contextual and reasonable. There were no sexual situations or nudity. Overall, the tenor of this movie is fairly tame. I did not take issue with my nine-year-old watching this film, which had far less gore than most video games these days.
As indicated, the concept at work in Freedom Writers has been done a hundred times. What makes a film like this succeed are the original elements introduced to the story. The fact that it is based on a true story appealed to me. The character development and dialogue were also interesting. The movie was sluggish at times, with the pacing being my biggest complaint. However, this movie managed to tell several mini stories to give us a fuller appreciation of the characters without bogging us down in a bunch of drivel. In that manner, this movie succeeded. I would give Freedom Writers four stars out of a possible five.
I apologize for the Janis Joplin Headsong of the day (in my title)...if you are one that gets these songs stuck in your head all day. But look at the bright side...I could have saddled you with Too Sexy or Macarena!