If you buy into the message of movies like “Dangerous Minds,” “Stand and Deliver,” or – more to the point of this review – “Freedom Writers,” which is based on the experiences of Long Beach teacher Erin Gruwell (portrayed stoically by Hilary Swank), then virtually everyone involved in teaching troubled children hates their job. What other explanation can there be for the periodic release of films depicting the lone crusading educator fighting against the combined forces of faculty and school board to do the right thing by their disenfranchised students? According to these movies, if every teacher had the grit and determination of an Erin Gruwell (or a Louanne Johnson, or a Jaime Escalante) then our schools would be Aristotelian centers of learning churning out scientists and mathematicians by the busload.
Anyone who knows a teacher personally and sees the effort and dedication most put into their craft realizes this is bullshit, and that maybe the problems in our educational system arise more from things like cramming 45 students into a classroom and concentrating more on standardized testing than a well-rounded curriculum than on teacher’s lack of dedication.
But that’s neither here nor there. What’s relevant for purposes of “Freedom Writers” is that we once again have another predictable story about an attractive and largely naïve teacher saddled with a class full of problem kids, most attending as a result of the high school’s forced integration program. Almost all of her students are from poor homes, and some are actually homeless. Many are also immersed in gang culture, which leads to initial tensions between rival factions of blacks, Hispanics, Cambodians, and the lone white student (whose sole purpose appears to be giving body to the old stand-up joke, “See, white guys dance like this, while black guys dance like this”).
Eventually, and in spite of resistance from her peers (Imelda Staunton, effectively erasing any memory of “Vera Drake”), her husband (Patrick Dempsey), her father (Scott Glenn), and the students themselves, she perseveres. Working two extra jobs to buy books and supplies for her class, she gets her students to pour their hearts out in journals, confessing their deepest fears and going into lurid detail about their lousy domestic situations. By showing her students how similar they really are, Gruwell eventually (*gasp*) convinces them of their innate worth and even gets a couple of them to distance themselves from a life of crime. It’s all quite heartwarming, really, and we’re doubtless supposed to marvel even more that it’s all based on a true story.
True or not, “Freedom Writers” is as by-the-book as a movie like this can get. The only aspect of these flicks that’s changed since the days of “The Blackboard Jungle” is that the leads have gotten prettier (compare Michelle Pfeiffer, Antonio Banderas, and Swank to the likes of Edward James Olmos, Morgan Freeman, and Nick Nolte) and whiter. Indeed, one wonders where these poor minority kids would be without the attractive Caucasian to lead them up out of despair.
And for my money, no movie comes close to capturing the high school experience like “The Substitute.”
In the end, the moribund theme of “true believer defies expectations and wrings greatness from his/her class of modern-day Dead End Kids” is beaten once more. Swank is believably earnest, while Dempsey does a good job reminding us why he was banished to TV in the first place, but it doesn’t matter. Locations and actors may change, but you’ve seen all of this before.