Years ago there was a cartoon in a magazine showing two of Pavlov’s dogs conversing about the ringing bell they’re supposed to associate with food. One dog says to the other, “They want me to salivate, but I’ll be damned if I’ll give them the satisfaction.” Watching Freedom Writers, I knew exactly how that dog felt.
I was fully conscious of every effort the film was making to assault my tear ducts. While I’d be lying if I said all such attempts were unsuccessful, I’d be equally dishonest if I didn’t note that the more successful attempts earned my resentment at the barefaced manipulation of it all. Throw in the attempted manipulation of 17 (out of 28) glowing “user reviews” posted on the Internet Movie Database by people who have never posted anything else — most of which urge the reader to “ignore the critics,” all of which smack of studio shills — and the whole enterprise feels sketchy in the extreme.
The film itself is another in the seemingly endless procession of “true stories” that have become increasingly common in recent years. I guess the proliferation of such is a reflection of the success of “reality” shows on TV. The makers of these cinematic variants assume that viewers will accept the movies at face value and never question just how much the truth has been tweaked for maximum dramatic effect. (Considering I’ve had people argue with me that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre “really happened,” the assumption is hardly unfounded.)
Freedom Writers presents us with the story of Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank), who inspired and empowered a classroom full of inner city kids by urging them to write their stories in theme books. The stories were then compiled into a book, The Freedom Writers Diary, which writer-director Richard LaGravenese turned into the screenplay for the film. The results are uneven. When LaGravense sticks to the kids’ stories (sticking, of course, to the most dramatic ones), his film is on surer footing than it is when he deals with the backstory of Gruwell and the classroom itself. The sections of the film that are presented in the kids’ voices have the feel of something pretty authentic (even if most of the scenes of their lives outside the classroom feel contrived and drearily generic).
The scenes involving Gruwell come across like suspiciously melodramatic variations on James Clavell’s To Sir, With Love (1967) — so much that you keep waiting for Lulu to show up and sing a theme song. This wouldn’t be so bad if Swank’s Gruwell seemed even a third as real as Sidney Poitier’s Mark Thackeray did 40 years ago. But she doesn’t. As crafted by LaGravenese and played by Swank, Gruwell is too perky, too white, too clueless and too put-upon to believe. The woman is all smiles (and when Swank smiles, it’s like being smacked in the face with a neon billboard), and her grooming is perfect (albeit /obersquare). With her ubiquitous string of pearls, it’s hard to escape the feeling that she’s on a par with June Cleaver baking cookies for Wally and the Beaver. I’m guessing she’s supposed to be upbeat, but too often she just seems simpleminded.
And was it really necessary to have the entire adult world set against her? Did all the other teachers hate and resent her efforts? Were they all cardboard villains out of a cheesy melodrama? The film thinks so.
But for all its flaws, the film isn’t bad at what it does, and it’s certainly worthwhile for younger viewers who’ll likely have no clue that it’s utterly formulaic. And there are good things in the movie: The trip to the Holocaust museum is masterfully done, and the scene where Miep Gies (the woman who hid Anne Frank from the Nazis) visits the class is powerful — even if the casting of TV veteran Pat Carrol in the role is a little distracting. That this dramatic high point occurs long before the movie ends, however, is a huge structural problem. The bottom line is that Freedom Writers will work for viewers with a penchant for this particular subgenre, but others might well find it too much of the same old thing. Rated PG-13 for violent content, some thematic material and language.
â reviewed by Ken Hanke