Hilary Swank gives a powerhouse performance as a maverick high school teacher in "Freedom Writers," an often gripping and sometimes even inspiring film drama taken from the real-life story of Erin Gruwell. The first-time freshman English teacher at Wilson High School in Long Beach, Calif., turned a rough classroom situation into a local educational triumph.
Like Erin Brockovich in the movie made from that real-life story, this
California Erin offers the type of role that actresses love to
play--especially Oscar-winning actresses with artistic ideals and high
ambitions like Swank. And who can blame her? Erin is smart, dedicated,
warm-hearted, a battler for the rights and potential of her mostly
lower-class students, and a woman who defies grievous personal problems
and nasty office intrigue to kindle the flame of knowledge among her
white, black, Asian and Latino kids.
In her first go-round as a teacher, after abandoning a seemingly
sure-fire career as a lawyer, shepherded by her successful attorney dad
Steve (Scott Glenn), Gruwell takes over a class of hard-case students
who at first ignore or ridicule her, while working with cynical or
contentious colleagues who think that teaching these kids is a waste and
mock her for wearing pearls to a school that needs security patrols.
But Gruwell breaks through, giving them a taste for "The Diary of Anne
Frank" and Homer's "Odyssey," even though their own lives are riddled
with broken homes, turf wars, drive-by shootings and personal
tragedy--and even though many of them have lost at least one friend to
Out of her efforts came "The Freedom Writers Diary," an anthology of
journals and personal writings done in Gruwell's class. These memoirs
convey the tension and danger--and sometimes overwhelming sadness--of
the students' lives, and bits of them are used in voice-overs during the
The film's emotional high comes when Gruwell (as it happened in life)
brings to her class--all the way from the Netherlands--one of the main
characters in Anne Frank's diary: Anne's friend and protector, Miep
Gies, now an elderly woman played by Pat Carroll. If this were fiction,
the average screenwriter probably would have dismissed that scene as
unbelievable--but it's precisely why Gruwell's story is worth telling.
Swank makes the role her own, and she helps her fellow actors shine,
too, including Patrick Dempsey as her initially supportive but
eventually alienated husband, Scott, and Imelda Staunton (the great
"Vera Drake") as her most persistent foe at school--as well as younger
actors like April Lee Hernandez as gang-girl Eva, Mario as street guy
Andre, and Deance Wyatt as nasty class-clown Jamal.
If "Freedom Writers" weren't based on a true story--and if some of its
most amazing scenes, such as the Miep Gies visit, weren't taken from
life--it might be damned as sentimental and improbable. But
writer-director Richard LaGravenese (who scripted "The Fisher King" for
Terry Gilliam and "The Bridges of Madison County" for Clint Eastwood)
can mix reality, sentiment and high drama with a balance that catches
the story's raw anxiety and heartfelt connections.