Friday, January 5, 2007

Freedom Writers

The idea of an inspiring teacher actually making a difference may seem cliche nowadays, but there's nothing cliche about Freedom Writers. The tale of a young teacher struggling with gangs, and inner city violence, and a system which has all but given up on the very students she was hired to help learn is, simply put, a great film. There were plenty of films I thought were excellent from last year but none which hit me on such an emotionally raw level as this. Don't miss it and don't dismiss it; Freedom Writers just might be the best film you see this year.

The film begins with Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank) interviewing for a teaching position at Wilson High School. The bright-eyed Gruwell just graduated from college and wants to change the world. Those around her including her husband (Patrick Dempsey), father (Scott Glenn), the head of the English department (Imelda Staunton), and even her students, don't expect her to make it a week.

As the newest teacher Gruwell is given the Freshman of Wilson who are considered unteachable She has too many students, few supplies, and almost no support within the school. She believes every student has a right to learn, but she's told to do her best and teach the students she can, and life will get easier as the more undesirable ones will eventually drop out. It's a powerful message, and an all true real one, about the struggles teachers in this country go through daily.

With her small amount of support dwindling Gruwell fights even harder to get her students the materials they need and struggles with finding an "in" to their lives. She finds it, almost by accident, when discussing gang violence that leads to a revelation that these high school students had never even heard of the Holocaust. With a small window of hope she opens up the students to The Diary of Anne Frank, the Civil Rights Movement, and anything else she can find to bridge the gap and make learning applicable to their lives.

The film is as much about the students as Gruwell herself. In an effort to get them to open up Gruwell gives them journals to write about their lives. Here the film succeeds far past expectations as we learn about these students from their own words. It's quite moving as the actors read from the real journals of the Freedom Writers.

Erin Gruwell is a real teacher and the film is based on her real experiences as a teacher in Long Beach, California. We've gotten a glut of inspirational teacher movies lately, and it seems likely that this one might get dismissed as simply another Dangerous Minds without people taking the hard look at it the film deserves.

My response to this film might be slightly different than your average movie goer, so let me explain why. I come from a long line of teachers and graduated myself with a teaching degree which I put to work immediately in Kansas City. As a first year teacher in an urban school I struggled with many of the same issues Gruwell faced - a diverse and disinterested student body, lack of any real parental support, the behind-the-scenes politics, a staff of hardworking but tired teachers making more concessions every year, and administration with no real power to change things. I know all too well the draining power and burn-out this can have on a struggling first year teacher.

The film gets it all right and never settles for easy answers when a hard truth will work instead. It's a touching story that will shed some light on both the limits and the extraordinary achievements of public education in America.

This is Swank's best role since her Acamdemy Award winning performance in Million Dollar Baby, but the real stars are the supporting performances of the students. There are too many to go into long details about each performance so I'll just list these wonderful young actors who each pour their whole hearts into the role. You can tell when a film is important to the cast of a film. Freedom Writers was obvioulsy an important story for everyone involved.

First there's April L. Hernandez as the hard-as-nails Eva fighting a choice of what is right and what is necessary for survival. There's Jason Finn as the homeless gangbanger who only wants to be taken back by his mother. There's Hunter Parrish as the white kid of the class. And there's Mario as a student with real potential who is caught between the gang lifestyle and pursuing something more. And those are just the beginning of a long list which also includes Jacklyn Ngan, Vanetta Smith, Kristin Herrera, and Deance Wyatt.

This is a great little film that I hope you take the time to seek out and enjoy.; My only complaint was it came out one week too late to be included on my best films of last year. I'm not worried though, I think its got a pretty good shot at making next year.

For more information about the film check out the official site, and for those interested in reading more about the real experiences of Gruwell and her Freedom Writers can check out The Freedom Writers Diary at

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