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Jan. 11, 2007

"Freedom Writers" make the grade

by Julia Mazerov, Online Entertainment Editor
If you're sick of the tired, formulaic films about students fighting gang violence in an intensely segregated high school, don't hold your breath. But no need to give LaGravenese' new film the cold shoulder; there's something refreshing about the authenticity of "Freedom Writers" that makes this January release drastically different from the overwhelmingly fatigued plotline seen in movies like "Coach Carter" and "Dangerous Minds."

In this film, written and directed by Richard LaGravenese, the na´ve but incessantly cheery Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank) is thrust into gang-war-torn Long Beach, Calif. in 1994, only two years following the Los Angeles gang riots. Gruwell lands at Wilson High School amidst a student body that dodges bullets on their way to class and an administration embittered by the forced segregation that prompted a significant decline in the school's overall performance. From the start, Gruwell's freshman English students, many clad with ankle monitors tracking their every move, can smell her fear. Despite a rough beginning, Gruwell is able to break down the barriers between her African-American, Latino, Cambodian and white students with a simple composition notebook. Gruwell encourages her disinterested pupils to write once a day on any subject of their choice and thus, the "Freedom Writers" are born.
<i>Picture courtesy of imdb.com </i>
Picture courtesy of imdb.com

This film, based on a true story, stems from the published work titled The Freedom Writers Diary, which chronicles the vignettes of the real Erin Gruwell's students and their experiences as adolescent gang members. (Note: The students named themselves the "freedom writers" which is modeled after the plight and audacity of the civil rights activists known as the "Freedom riders.") The chronicles account for the "Freedom Writers" originality, as frequent voiceovers featuring the student's diary excerpts perfectly accompany dramatic scenes. The audience gains insight into the harsh reality that characterizes the lives of these students on a much deeper level through the access of the student's personal diaries.

These students are all played by new faces to the Hollywood scene, with a particularly strong performance from primary character April Lee Hernandez who plays Eva, a dominant Latina girl introduced at the beginning of the movie as witness to her own cousin's brutal murder. This event hardens her, and the audience observes Eva's transformation throughout the film as she rejects her initial heartless views and emerges as a mature, moral young woman forced to who is forced to make a life-altering decision. Singer/song-writer Mario also makes an appearance as the angered Jamal. Though many were undoubtedly suspicious of his capabilities, he pulls off the role with an excellent portrayal of a drug dealer eager to learn but lacking in motivation.

If anyone can evoke this motivation, it is undoubtedly Swank supported by her strength of character. Her performance as a relentless crusader despite major setbacks caused by the negativity of her father (Scott Glen), husband (Patrick Dempsey) and supervisor (Imelda Staunton) is extremely powerful. The role is also strikingly similar to Swank's character of Maggie Fitzgerald in "Million Dollar Baby," during which Swank rises above rejection despite major roadblocks. Unlike many of her Hollywood counterparts who use stimulating speeches to inspire at-risk teens (think "Remember the Titans"), it's clear that Gruwell actively cares about her students. Instead of preaching to them, she organizes field trips and fancy dinners, finances new books with the help of two extra jobs, and even flies in Miep Gies (Pat Carroll) from Switzerland, the woman who hid Anne Frank's family during the Holocaust. Clearly, Swank's character doesn't just "talk the talk," a quality which allows her to win over the trust and admiration of her students who, before her didn't even know that trust existed.

This unfaltering strength and compelling performance is unfortunately not shared by Gruwell's spouse Scott Casey (Patrick Dempsey). Dempsey's performance as the whiny, neglected husband is disappointingly lackluster, yet it is debatable whether Dempsey is to blame or if LaGravenese simply didn't give his character enough depth.

There also exist some unanswered questions regarding the plot, such as a mysterious focus on Gruwell's beloved pearl necklace. The audience is sure something significant will happen like the theft of this precious item, yet nothing ever does. Another questionable plot element is the unusually rapid transformation of the academic capabilities of Gruwell's students. One of the opening scenes shows the English students as not being able to form complete sentences, yet they are soon pouring their hearts out with rich dialogue depicting vivid images of gang violence.

The film's meager shortcomings in no way detract from the powerful message that "Freedom Writers" has to offer. Swank's bold performance provides for one of the most memorable films in a genre plagued by an undoubtedly repetitive theme.

Freedom Writers runs 2 hrs. and 3 mins. and is rated PG-13 for violent content, some thematic material and language.



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  • lokiloc on January 12, 2007 at 11:48 AM
    i love movies like des . i lov u=2 see gang members. fucc slobs crip all day
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