January 10-16, 2007

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All the good deeds can't wipe away the dreary clichés of 'Freedom Writers'

By Richard von Busack

THE NEW Hilary Swank movie is based on The Freedom Writers Diary, the 1999 collection of essays by students from an inner-city Long Beach high school who were inspired to write by their teacher, Erin Gruwell. Gruwell has since become a spokesperson for at-risk students. Still: inspirational subject matter be damned, this is a derivative, visually dreary and scandalously overlong teach-flick. Director Richard LaGrevenese's hand-held camera tries to give an illusion of neo-documentary to characters who never existed outside of a movie set.

Patrick Dempsey has the role of shame as the husband who has to keep threatening Erin (Swank) if she doesn't give up on the kids; his at-home chiding simply echoes the two other nay-sayers in her school, a wantonly squandered Imelda Staunton (Vera Drake), and John Benjamin Hickey as the racist teacher who has seniority over Erin. No one helps her, except the Borders Bookstore that gives Erin a deal on texts and the Starbucks coffee that gives her energy. Only a montage, scripted to some of the words of these students, has any believability. Freedom Writers is co-produced by MTV, which made its billions glorifying blood-in-the-streets music; the film, of course, serves as a delivery system for more music that celebrates the righteousness of these warriors, even as we see that righteousness challenged in the classroom. And so it goes, back and forth, between the thrill of gang-banging and the sensitivity training in the classroom afterward.

April L. Hernandez and Deance Wyatt acquit themselves as students; in the lead role, Swank dresses like Laura Bush even when she's cooking in the kitchen. I've read Gruwell interviewed on, in an article that ought to be on The teacher is now so media-savvy that she echoes how important it was to cast Swank instead of a Latino actress (Gruwell is Latino) since Swank can open a picture, unlike any Latino actress today. Eventually, even Anne Frank's protectoress, Miep Gies, is enlisted to endorse the importance of this film: says the actress playing Gies to the class, "Your faces will be engraved on my memory forever." And yet it's hard to remember even one of those faces 20 seconds after the movie is over. Some will say any movie that celebrates the liberal arts ought to be celebrated, as opposed to the rest of the current American cinema, which is more or less proudly barbarian. But a movie this shameless treats everyone like they're in the slow-learners class.

Movie Times Freedom Writers (PG-13; 123 min.), directed by Richard LaGravenese, written by LaGravenese, Erin Gruwell and the Freedom Writers, photographed by Jim Denault and starring Hilary Swank, plays valleywide.

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