out of Five
Running time: 123
At first glance, Freedom Writers looks like the sort of film you've seen a hundred times before, but it exerts a powerful emotional grip, thanks to a sharp script and strong performances.
What's it all about?
Based on a true story, Freedom Writers stars Hilary Swank as Erin Gruwell, a naive but well-intentioned English teacher who starts a new job at an integrated Los Angeles high school. She's assigned one of the most difficult classes and initially struggles to communicate with her students, whilst also clashing with her dismissive department head (Imelda Staunton, with a note-perfect American accent).
However, things change for Erin when a gang shooting and an ugly racist cartoon passed around in class become unlikely, but effective teaching aids. Soon she's encouraging her students to read The Diary of Anne Frank and to keep journals of their own, but her achievements at work take a severe toll on her personal life, to the growing frustration of her husband (Patrick Dempsey).
Hilary Swank is superb as Erin and it's interesting that the audience is encouraged to find her embarrassing attempts to be cool as cringe-worthy as the students do. However, her achievements are undeniably impressive and the film's message is genuinely inspirational.
The supporting cast are excellent, particularly April Lee Hernandez (as Eva, the most outspoken student), Jason Finn (quietly impressive as sensitive student Marcus) and the always-reliable Scott Glenn as Erin's sympathetic dad. Dempsey struggles with a largely unsympathetic role but Staunton is terrific, creating a character who will be instantly familiar from work-places the world over.
The decision to incorporate extracts from the actual book pays huge dividends and the film gains a large measure of its power from the emotional rawness of the students' own voices. However, the script is also careful to balance things out with the occasional witty line.
An inspirational teacher movie that is moving, thought-provoking and succeeds in being genuinely inspiring. Recommended.
Freedom Writers (12A)