Freedom Writers is a spirited and awfully engaging rendition of the ancient Dangerous Minds formula; it’s appropriately uplifting without descending into absurdity or getting on our nerves. At the same time, it engages in enormous amounts of wishful thinking and squeezes the movie into a framework far too small to contain it: one with clear-cut heroes and villains, confrontations and gratifying victories, a world where good intentions can overcome guns and economics. It’s even more frustrating once you realize that this is the very reason the film is so engaging and uplifting, the reason that the formula works. And that’s when you begin to question whether the formula — complete with its “inspired by a true story” title card homilies — is all that productive.
It is unclear, for example, why Imelda Staunton’s Mrs. Campbell, the staunchly traditionalist department head who becomes the bane of Inspirational Teacher Erin Gruwell’s existence, must be so petty, vindictive and unreasonable. The inspiration for her rhetoric, though it appears laughably draconian in context, is at least discernible: she represents the establishment at large, insisting on clear standards and methods that will enable the system to process millions of students without deteriorating into anarchy. But Freedom Writers tries hard to make her as detestable as possible, making Gruwell’s successes into her frustrations and playing those for laughs — there’s a montage of an increasingly agitated Campbell repeatedly marching to the principal’s office, angrily brandishing a newspaper with an article about the latest triumph by Gruwell and her troubled remedial students. All this is enough to make you forget that there actually are people making the arguments she is making, who are not laughable caricatures. As a tool of conventional storytelling, the character actually works nicely, but Freedom Writers would have been a stronger film had writer-director Richard LaGravanese tempered some of his instincts.
I had a similar reaction to some of the students’ attitude adjustments, except that I’m not sure it even makes for riveting cinema for Gloria (Kristin Herrera) to go from professing an everlasting hatred for white people to pow-wowing with lily-colored Mrs. Gruwell after a little friendly prodding by the latter; lectures about Doing the Right Thing further prompt her to risk her life by incriminating a fellow gang member rather than falsely accuse an innocent. It could happen, but the movie is shooting awfully high. A little subtlety would have gone a long way.
For all that, as I’ve suggested, it’s hard to deny the dramatic power of Freedom Writers, or the skill of LaGravanese’s screenplay and direction. I’ve never been beholden to verisimilitude in watching films, and on a superficial emotional level, I had no trouble going along with this well-intentioned version of an age-old (by Hollywood standards) tale. The protagonist is bright and uncondescending, clearly improvising in an attempt to channel her fervent desire to help into something productive; Hilary Swank deserves credit for keeping Gruwell’s save-the-world earnestness surprisingly down-to-earth. The kids are generally likable and not mere punks; the Miep Gies sequence is affecting (Pat Carroll turns in a great performance, such that I was fooled into thinking that the real Miep Gies had been brought in for an appearance); the film certainly doesn’t lack great montage work. It’s a good story, told with energy and palpable passion.
To its credit, too, Freedom Writers doesn’t claim to have all the answers; when asked whether she thinks she can reproduce her miraculous results with every class she teaches, Gruwell frankly replies that she doesn’t know. And if seen as “just a story” about this particular class at this particular school, the film can perhaps elide some of my complaints above. At the same time, though, its stab at broader significance is blatant, and to deny it would be silly. As such, I’m not sure the film has the right idea. The formula is good, as far as it goes; sadly, I’m not sure it goes very far any longer.