Intriguing glimpses into the lives of poor, disadvantaged, racially divided kids in contemporary American society get waylaid in "Freedom Writers" as it becomes a 21st century redo of "Blackboard Jungle."
Because the film is based on a real-life high school English class in Long Beach, Calif., whose teacher is played by two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank, this undoubtedly was a foolproof way to get a commercially risky subject developed and greenlighted. But it ill serves the original material, a published collection of journal entries by at-risk students written over several years that explain and explore their lives, fears and aspirations.
So the Hollywood development process has produced a movie at war with itself. On one hand, this is a Hilary Swank vehicle with undue focus on the mundane problems -- at least compared to the high drama in her students' lives -- of a neophyte teacher. On the other, there are these students starting to make connections between their lives and the lives of others through introspective writing.
The film has inspired moments and fine performances from its young actors. Swank's name might boost the urban drama's boxoffice potential into the $25 million-$30 million range, which considering its modest budget would be a success.
According to this movie, written and directed by Richard LaGravenese, Erin Gruwell (Swank) comes to Wilson High School after the Rodney King riots, much like Alice the day she fell down that rabbit hole. Brimming with self-confidence over her lesson plans and holding a concept of inner-city youths that can charitably be called naive, Erin is shocked by the blatant disrespect, racism and hostility exhibited by her students.
Remarkably, she quickly turns into a savvy teacher with seemingly years of experience. She turns a racist classroom drawing into a brilliant teaching aid and instinctively realizes that reading "The Diary of Anne Frank" will hugely impact her students' outlooks. Before you know it, her class is one big rainbow coalition/summer camp love-in. Only in the margins do the students share their lives with viewers -- abuse, broken homes, drive-bys, drugs and racism are everyday challenges. Strangely but presumably to maintain a PG-13 rating, the film never touches on the teens' sexual activity.
The key student is Eva, played by April Lee Hernandez with a bitter scowl darkening her strikingly beautiful face. Indeed, the film starts off as if she were the central figure before the focus shifts to her teacher, then fragments into a classwide diffusion. Yet her dilemma -- as a Latina caught up in gang culture who faces a moral decision about testifying in court against one of "her own" -- is the on-and-off central thread of the film.
Other glancing though effective performances come from Jason Finn as a young man living on the street, Grammy-nominated Mario as a teen coping with his brother's travails in the legal system, Hunter Parrish as a white youth ostracized from all camps and Jaclyn Ngan as a Cambodian survivor of a refugee camp.
Far too much time is spent with Erin and her naysayers: the husband (Patrick Dempsey) who sulks nightly over red wine when she comes home late, an ex-civil rights champion father (Scott Glenn) who now scorns ghetto youths and a jealous fellow teacher (Imelda Staunton) who has several "Captain Queeg" moments that betray her utter contempt for the students.
Swank, who exec produced the film, marches through the story with a curiously inappropriate grin on her face. No teacher in America could possibly smile this often. Never once do you see the iron in the character that enables her to cope and connect with such challenging students.
Production values are sharp with a fine use of contemporary music and smart cinematography. But the film is both too short and too long at two hours-plus. Not enough time is spent with the teens and far too much with their teacher.
Paramount Pictures in association with MTV Films present a Jersey Films/Double Feature Films production
Screenwriter-director: Richard LaGravenese
Based on the book by: the Freedom Writers with Erin Gruwell
Producers: Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher
Executive producers: Hilary Swank, Tracey Durning, Nan Morales, Dan Levine
Director of photography: Jim Denault
Production designer: Laurence Bennett
Music: Mark Isham, will.i.am
Costume designer: Cindy Evans
Editor: David Moritz
Erin Gruwell: Hilary Swank
Scott Casey: Patrick Dempsey
Steve Gruwell: Scott Glenn
Margaret Campbell: Imelda Staunton
Eva: April Lee Hernandez
Marcus: Jason Finn
Ben: Hunter Parrish
Sindy: Jaclyn Ngan
Running time -- 122 minutes
MPAA rating: PG-13