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Freedom Writers is the latest in a long line of white suburban teacher goes to the ghetto and saves gangbangers movies. They all take different tactics to saving the violent little punks in their classes, but 23-year-old Erin Gruwell’s approach is certainly one of the most unique. She wins her teenage hoodlums over by calling them Nazis and then turning them into pen and paper bloggers. Lucky for her the kids in her class are too dumb to know what Nazis are and blogging didn’t actually exist yet, or she might have gotten shot for suggesting it. Blogging is so lame.
Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank) does not get shot and that, not her success in the classroom is what’s most amazing about Freedom Writers. She’s a pampered, idealistic, white girl with grand ideas about how she’s going to save the ghetto, and so she volunteers to take her first teaching job at racially charged, poverty stricken Wilson High School in South Central Las Angeles just a few years after the Rodney King sparked LA riots. Director/writer Richard LaGravenese portrays the neighborhood she’s walking into as if it’s Vietnam, and early on in the movie it seems almost as if he’s making excuses for the gangs of bloodthirsty little savages roaming the streets and halls of Wilson High. But not so.
The movie is based on a book by the same name, in which the real Erin Gruwell’s class wrote about their experiences as gangbangers and then their attachment to Gruwell’s class. So early on the movie approaches their lives from their skewed perspective. Her students believe themselves brave soldiers in some war, and fill their diaries with empty justification for the racial hatred and brutality they’ve idealized. Eventually Erin gets through to them, breaking through their wall of keeping it real to serve them a little bit of reality. Are her breakthroughs with them moving? Yes. But her methods are incredibly naïve. The Erin Gruwell portrayed in this movie got lucky. While blustering her way through helping her class full of students, she encounters the usual obligatory opposition from more experienced, battle weary teachers and school administration. We’re supposed to be rooting for Erin to prove them wrong, and she does. But that doesn’t mean her detractors aren’t right. They have a point. She was the right person, with the right class, at the right time. She doesn’t discover a magic formula for getting gangbangers to stop shooting each other in the chest, she simply stumbles on a class full of downtrodden, violent kids who happen to be ready to listen. As portrayed in the film, the secret to her success was simply blind, stupid idealism. I doubt it would work again. The real Erin Gruwell quit High School teaching and moved on to a college professorship immediately after shepherding this one group of kids through Wilson High, so perhaps she’d agree.
Freedom Writers works because the group of teenage actors they’ve brought together in it are fantastic, and because the script has enough sappy, tear-jerking moments to keep you involved. Hilary Swank is tenacious and determined as Gruwell, but it’s moment by moment performances from her kids that make it worth watching. They do it even though the script often leaves them stranded. Most of the kids are completely underdeveloped, and they’re only brought to the forefront when LaGravenese wants to make one of them cry. You won’t remember most of their names, but their stories will leave an impression on you. That’s better than expected for a movie released in the dead zone of early January.