Hilary Swank, one of my favorite actresses, has a wonderful smile--a big, toothy entity that exudes joy in bucketloads. As much as I love seeing it, director Richard LaGravenese should've instructed her to take it down a notch for Freedom Writers. It's a big-hearted movie that is done in by an uncharacteristically overwrought performance by Swank, as well as a script, based on actual events, that feels a little too cute for comfort.
With her first day on the job, new high school teacher Erin Gruwell (Swank) is a little too happy to be believed. She's dressed in her best pearls, jovially sipping her coffee and ready to teach at-risk students in a newly integrated Los Angeles school. Veteran teacher Margaret Campbell (Imelda Staunton) sees the new woman's enthusiasm and bristles. As far as she's concerned, Gruwell has no idea what she is in for.
She's in for plenty. Students make fun of her chalk-covered butt within minutes, and the first-day highlight would be a fistfight being broken up by a hallway security guard. Many of the students have gang affiliations, and these tensions follow them into the classroom. Gruwell then births the idea to have the kids learn about poetry by listening to Tupac Shakur. That's an interesting idea, but the goofy way the film executes it made me groan.
The lineup of students is an interesting one, and some of these first-time actors do nice work. It's almost as if their parts were written with a sensitive and original eye, while all of the adult roles were penned with nothing but clichés in mind. Like Michelle Pfeiffer before her in Dangerous Minds, Swank's Gruwell is the White Savior who can do no wrong and would be right at home with a halo over her head.
Swank's performance is almost inhuman in its sunny splendor. If the character had just frowned a bit or kicked the occasional trashcan in frustration, she could've seemed more balanced. Even if the real-life Gruwell is this sunny, it doesn't translate well to the big screen.
The student stories are also standard, but some of the actors and actresses manage to pull them off. I especially liked April L. Hernandez as Eva, a Hispanic student who has witnessed a convenience-store shooting and must testify in the trial.
Basically, all of the authority figures at the school, other than Gruwell, are jaded idiots. The Margaret Campbell character (played in an over-the-top and ultra-cranky manner by Staunton) has almost no redeeming qualities. It's hard to believe that nobody working alongside Gruwell shared her passion for making the lives of their students better. I'm sure there were a bunch of fed-up teachers, but it would've been good to see at least one more hardworking teacher trying to reach these kids.
It's a fact that the real-life Gruwell inspired kids to succeed, and I appreciate that the film informed me on this subject. That doesn't mean the movie itself didn't make me cringe at many points; Gruwell is depicted as far too saintly. Surely, any woman who sees her marriage fall apart while trying to do her job would display more distress. Gruwell's husband (Patrick Dempsey, doing his best with a thankless role) sits at home moping while his wife is out changing the world. He packs his bags to leave; she acts surprised and drinks some wine, and that's it. Obviously, Gruwell's divorce isn't the meat of this story, but if you are going to address it in such a shallow manner, why not avoid it altogether?
There's a book out there by the Freedom Writers (a name the students adapted for themselves) that tells their stories in diary form. I'm thinking the book might be far more compelling than the movie. As for Swank, she's a great actress, but she's taken a slight misstep with her work here. It happens to the best of them.