Hilary Swank risks being a cliche here and wins the bet.

Freedom Writers

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

            You may think you’ve seen this one before. Dedicated teacher rescues urban gang kids in a classroom bathed in Hollywood transparency. So if you think this might be one too many, consider trying to watch it through the eyes of adolescence.

            The movie, overstated though it may be, is book ended by reality. In real life, Erin Gruwell is a teacher who reached her students by suggesting they write the answers to her questions in journals that could be left safely and anonymously in her locked cabinet. She and the class published the results as a book, The Freedom Writers Diary. In a final ironic reality, one of the non-professional young actors in this movie was shot to death in the lobby of a fast food restaurant shortly after the movie was finished. According to his friends, he had hoped that this, his first role, would lead to more that would in turn allow him to help his family move out of the danger zone that was their home.

            The focus: how to reach students considered hopeless by the system. Hilary Swank and director/screenwriter Richard LaGravenese have painted Erin Gruwell in such bold and unlikely colors that for a while we cringe a little. But reality saves them from the obvious. The preppy daughter of a jaded former hippie father (Scott Glenn), Erin carries all her idealism to her first day’s work at Woodrow Wilson high school in Long Beach, California a district still under the influence of the Los Angeles riots of the early ‘90s. Wearing a plain maroon suit and a gleaming string of pearls, she also carries a fierce determination to follow the syllabus.

            Progress will come, if it can at all, from a teacher who abandons her lesson plan and listens. If you are seventeen and without hope, a teacher who starts asking questions – first small, then more important ones – is someone who is teaching by building trust. Many of these teenagers are eager to tell their stories after trust is built. This teacher’s answer: to ask, to listen, and to guarantee their anonymity. Erin finds ways to open her students’ minds that are by turns touching and affecting – more so, of course, because the story is true. And so it seems the filmmakers may have been quite deliberate in painting their canvas in bold colors.

            Among the actors and civilians in the classroom, April Lee Hernandez is excellent as Eva, and the others are believable as damaged kids from the projects. Patrick Dempsey is appropriately warm and sad as a loving husband who is losing his wife to her bigger passion. Hilary Swank risks being a cliché here, and she wins the bet. If she seems unrealistically idealistic and decent, she also seems authentic. Erin Gruwell is one of those teachers who has actually changed lives off screen. If you have seen this before, remember to watch it as if you were seventeen.

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