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Review: 'Freedom Writers' barely passes

Story Highlights

• "Freedom Writers" about teacher facing tough classroom
• Movie follows pattern of teacher movies, rarely breaks through
• Star Hilary Swank is OK, Patrick Dempsey is decent
By Tom Charity
Special to CNN
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(CNN) -- Movies about inspirational teachers never go out of style.

In "Dangerous Minds" Michelle Pfeiffer woke up her inner-city English class by getting relevant and quoting Bob Dylan. In last year's "Take the Lead" Antonio Banderas turned delinquent teenagers onto George Gershwin and the foxtrot.

And way back in the distant sands of time I recall Danny DeVito preaching Shakespeare to recalcitrant recruit Marky Mark -- um, Mark Wahlberg -- in "Renaissance Man."

Well, Mr. DeVito has long-since graduated to producer status, but the song remains much the same as two-time Academy Award winner Hilary Swank squares up to a room of adolescent drop-outs and lost causes from "Little Cambodia, Wonderbreadland, the ghetto, and south of the border" (as the movie puts it) in a theoretically integrated Long Beach, California, high school.

At first she's earnest and almost comically na´ve, in her polka-dot dresses and pearls. Unprepared, certainly, for students wearing electronic ankle bracelets and packing heat.

"It's not like I pictured it," she confesses tearfully to her husband (an attractively low-key Patrick Dempsey) after the schoolyard has erupted in a riot.

If there is something suspect about this genre's comforting images of white role models "elevating" underprivileged minority kids, it's worth noting that in the best of these films a recovered class-consciousness cuts both ways. Based on the true story of Erin Gruwell and her 1994 freshmen class, "Freedom Writers" at least intimates that the teacher has as much to learn as her charges.

In the story's pivotal scene, Gruwell cracks down hard on a racist caricature with a stern reference to the Holocaust -- until she realizes that only one of her pupils (the white kid) understands what she's talking about. Then, when she asks if anyone in the class has lost a friend or loved one to gang violence, everyone's hand goes up (except the white kid's).

By making them acknowledge their shared pain, Gruwell begins to break down the racial divisions that have ghettoized the classroom, a process that also involves them educating her about their lives. She assigns two crucial books: "The Diary of Anne Frank" and their own blank journal.

However, it's one of the movie's major shortcomings that writer-director Richard LaGravenese (screenwriter of "The Fisher King" and "The Bridges of Madison County") is evidently more at home with the top-down -- trips to the Holocaust Museum; a visit from Anne Frank's protector, Miep Gies -- than the bottom-up: dramatizing the domestic "war" Gruwell's pupils describe vividly in their diaries.

Although he claims there is nothing made up in the film, LaGravenese doesn't remark on what has been left out. It's noticeable, for instance, that the movie is a drug-free zone. Compare that with Ryan Gosling's wired performance in "Half Nelson," a much braver and more complex approach to the social and ideological minefields that beset the education system.

A plot strand in which one student, Eva (April Lee Hernandez), must testify in a gang murder case tries but fails to snap the issues into sharper focus.

Then there is the critical problem of casting young adults to play children, a spurious modern Hollywood convention that makes a mockery of the film's purported realism. To play kids of 14 and 15 LaGravenese casts actors ranging from 19 to 26 (Hernandez). And if that age difference doesn't seem such a stretch, consider that when Erin Gruwell walked in to Room 203 to teach her first class at Wilson High, she was only 23 years old herself. (Hilary Swank, of course, is 10 years older than that.)

In the end, then, by default, "Freedom Writers" is another exceptional teacher scenario not so different from the norm. Teachers, I know, need all the inspiring Hollywood can give them, and it's impossible not to be impressed with the commitment Gruwell made to her kids (including working two part-time jobs to buy school supplies the system wouldn't provide).

At the same time, as one of her more jaded, conservative colleagues observes, it's very hard to see how her methods might apply on a wider institutional basis. According to the film's own end notes, in reality she soon traded in the high school trenches for a leafy college campus -- and, presumably, a movie deal.

"Freedom Writers" is rated PG-13 and runs 123 minutes.


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Hilary Swank and Jason Finn in "Freedom Writers"

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