At once heartfelt, absorbing, and dopey, this latest entry in the apparently inexhaustible Miracle Teacher genre reliably hits all the expected marks, with no cliché left behind. Based on the real-world experiences of Erin Gruwall facing her first class of East L.A. underdogs at Woodrow Wilson High School, Freedom Writers frontloads all the iconic moments in the tense period following Rodney King’s beating in 1992 and the subsequent riots. The last time this formula came around in rotation, Michelle Pfeiffer was karate-chopping high schoolers with Marine Corps tough love in Dangerous Minds, and before that we had Teachers, Stand and Deliver, Lean On Me, and many others, not forgetting Up the Down Staircase, unjustly forgotten yet uniquely free of hero worship or indulgent sentimentality. Hollywood keeps reviving this scenario because its flattery of hard-working educators and inspirational nostalgia for young adults makes it a surefire winner, and this new version feels just like all the old ones.
This time it’s Hilary Swank who wields the chalk and eraser through all the iconic scenes, arriving for her teaching debut with a fistful of lesson plans, only to endure bouts of intensive testing as her racially divided miscreants and roughnecks push to find the newbie’s boundaries. As customary, the starry-eyed do-gooder gets shocked when colleagues reveal themselves as callous careerists, then disappointed at the unappreciative turnout at parent-teacher night, but soon moves to jettison the curriculum (because it’s just not relevant). True to form, next come the school dance and the class excursion, all building to 11th-hour suspense about surmounting obstructionist bureaucracy to seek triumphal validation of her innovative methods. Introducing daily journaling, she allows the students to voice their own stories (or, at least, the words chosen for this script from their 1999 publication The Freedom Writers Diary). Dramatizing these with lightning vignettes of street gunfights, drive-by shootings, and homegrown violence, abuse, and murder, the film has a chance to open the narrative to their ground-level view of their lives conducted like warfare, of gang members as “soldiers of the streets,” and of the injustices created by racial divisions (“It all comes down to what you look like”).
Swank’s good-natured performance and some distinctive dialogue from writer-director Richard LaGravenese notwithstanding, the script dissipates the passion and insights of the students by insistently hewing to its boilerplate account of another white crusader ministering to the underserved, and one who embodies the racial divide herself. When one Latina tells her “I hate white people,” Gruwell responds, “You don’t know me,” but the student administers the zinger: “I know what you can do.”
One thing she can’t do is help other teachers since, short of abandoning the ideal of public education altogether, her methods are unsustainable. Combination cheerleader, diversity manager, sensitivity trainer, hip-hop aficionado (even if she can’t pronounce “Tupac Shakur”), and Holocaust educator, she seeks only to provoke her students to engage with their shared humanity. Yet she perpetuates the fantasy that creativity means teachers using their own salaries to pay for materials and books, community support be damned. “Miss G” takes not one but two part-time jobs to subsidize the education system and in the process lets her marriage slide into divorce. In the film’s best scene, her husband (dimply Patrick Dempsey from Grey’s Anatomy) argues that her newfound obsession doesn’t transfer to their relationship because “I don’t have any potential.” She enters this scene announcing, “I drove the kids home. I don’t want them to take buses.” (Presumably she stopped herself from doing their laundry and washing their floors too).
It’s up to the designated villain, Vera Drake‘s Imelda Staunton, to ask the best question: should teaching the three ‘R’s be left to free spirits with their touchy-feely New Age classroom games? It’s also on her agenda to target union contracts as the obstacle to classroom creativity. Despite its compassion for kids born into situations they didn’t make and the dog-eat-dog struggles happening on their doorsteps, the movie keeps mum when it comes to the real culprits—the brutal economic outlook for underclass members plus the systematic crippling of public education via underfunding. The untoward sympathy for the heroine plays badly next to its scant concern for the students’ need to support themselves in dead-end McJobs, nor is there much sign of behavioral pitfalls like drug and alcohol abuse (or even cursing). While looking a decade too old, these teenagers are decently individualized, but bland out in their transformation from cynical time-servers to wide-eyed softies.
Like its heroine, the movie begs for acceptance, grasping and manipulating heartstrings, sometimes achieving a flashing effectiveness even as it pulls itself out of shape, unpredictably veering between the teacher’s viewpoint and students narrating from their journals. Next to the direct journaling in Kirby Dick’s Chain Camera, composed of video footage made by Angeleno teens, Freedom Writers seems sentimentalized and wedded to outmoded technology. While Jim Denault’s rough-and-ready camerawork and contrasty color give a convincingly parched look to the proceedings here, this movie needs a more abrupt and decisive form, and the story deserves a more forceful criticism than this cult-like presentation. There’s no question that a forceful teacher can change a student’s life, but it rarely works positively for every individual. You don’t have to be Mr. Chips to know that making education stick takes an entire social system, not just one willful teacher, no matter how well-meaning.