Film Reviews


By • Jan 5th, 2007 •

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Too preachy, too many tears.

My friend, Jean Houck, Dean of the University of California at Long Beach, hired Erin Gruwell after she left – or was pushed – from her position as high school English teacher. Jean saw the movie at a private screening with Erin and loved the movie. Jean is quite fond of Erin.

I can’t believe incredibly saint-like Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank). She has no meanness in her. Growing up in Candyland, Erin decides to make a difference. Instead of pursuing a more appropriate career her father would be proud of, Erin chooses to teach in a newly integrated high school immediately after the L.A. riots. She wants to make a difference. She is naïve, sweet, and hopelessly happy about life. She wears pearls and is totally unaware of what she is walking straight into. She defiantly refuses to take off her pearls.

Like prison, the school is strictly divided into four groups: whites, blacks, Latinos, and Cambodian refugees. All the kids are mad, have been shot at, had friends who died in gang wars, and hate white people. It’s either go to school or go to “juvie jail.” Of course, no one on the faculty appreciates Erin’s gung-ho approach to teaching. It makes them all look like they are sleep-walking through their day jobs. They tell her to just baby-sit her classes. As a brand new first year English teacher, Erin has to follow orders from Margaret Campbell (Imelda Staunton), her department head with 25 years of service. Erin’s other nemesis is teacher Brian Gelford (John Benjamin Hickey) who has the only honor students class. Erin’s father (Scott Glenn) was once a civil rights activist who decides to support her. Erin’s husband, Scott (Patrick Dempsey), does not. He sulks around. He’s lonely.

Apparently, Erin has one class (or there is only one class Erin focuses all her attention on). Erin is shocked to find out that the kids are racists – not by conviction but by habit and ethnic lines. She stumbles upon the fact that these kids have never heard of The Holocaust! She starts to preach. Since the school refuses to give her “The Diary of Anne Frank” for her students, Erin takes a night job at Borders. She gets an employee discount and buys her students their first brand new book. Instead of giving out homework, Erin buys each student a composition book to write their thoughts down – just like Anne Frank did. As Gelford tells Erin, how dare she compare Anne Frank’s life with those of her students?

All the students become intrigued with the story of Anne Frank. Erin asks the kids to write letters to Miep Gies (Pat Carroll), the woman who hid Anne from the Nazis. In order to raise money for Gies to come to California, Erin takes a weekend job at a hotel! With three jobs, she can take her students on field trips (to a Holocaust museum) and dinners at the hotel’s restaurant. Now Scott is really mad. Erin’s class starts fund raising events for Gies’ visit to the school. Erin gets a lot of press.

The other teachers balk. They go to the school board and protest.

The composition entries become “The Freedom Writers Diary,” the basis for this film.

I do not like preachy films or films where all the inner-city kids eventually are made to weep and pontificate about the war zone they live in. Going outside means death.

Swank, who is one of the seven executive producers, is adorable as a fish-out-of-water innocent. The troublesome Eva (April Lee Hernandez), who challenges Erin’s authority in the classroom and the student who announces she “hates white people,” shows all the twitchy pouts of an angry Latina who blames society for preferring blond hair and blue eyes.

“Freedom Writers” is critic proof. If you don’t like an “inspirational, hope-filled story about a woman doing good for under-privileged kids,” what kind of person are you? The director/screenwriter, Richard LaGravenese, plays it safe. Anyone in a freshman screenwriting class could have written this script. I never believed any of these kids came from a tough neighborhood. They could have easily been the kids from “Fame.” There is nothing new here. This is the by-the-numbers Hollywood version. The kid’s stories are standardized, and Erin’s life is clearly idealized. Did Erin really have no social life and no friends?

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