Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Freedom Writers

Posted By on Wed, Jan 10, 2007 at 12:00 AM

There's one major thing wrong with Freedom Writers: Hilary Swank reminding us that before she was an A-lister, she was The Next Karate Kid. Swank waxes on the enthusiasm a bit thick in this run-of-the-mill inspirational teacher flick — think Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds, but substitute Katie Couric on uppers.

The irony here is Freedom Writers preaches that to reach troubled kids, educators have to be real. But there's nothing honest about how Swank — with that polished mug and gleaming white teeth stuck in a perma-grin — chirps her way through the drama. Yeah, the gal's got a couple more Oscars than most of Hollywood, but that doesn't mean she isn't annoying for an hour and a half.

This story is based on Erin Gruwell's efforts to inspire a Long Beach, Calif., classroom of students, just after Rodney King went down. The first-time English teacher enters the school with high hopes of really reaching the students, but she meets administration naysayers and resistant students at every turn.

She perseveres, however, and through journaling and reading books about other troubled teens — see Anne Frank and Romeo and Juliet — Gruwell's class becomes a room where the teens can openly discuss their problems. Gruwell's students christen themselves the "Freedom Writers," after learning about the civil rights movement.

The real Freedom Writers' methods and messages are inspirational, certainly — even in this film. The original group had stuck together, many graduating from college and going on to be educators. Along with Gruwell, they've started the Freedom Writers Foundation, inspiring educators and students to follow in their footsteps (see gruwellproject.org).

These kids should've have fallen through the cracks. They battled homelessness, abuse, neglect and gang pressures. The administration didn't care or trust them enough to give them books to read at home. Many had never heard of the Holocaust or read poetry, and bounced in and out of juvenile hall.

The young cast of mostly unknowns does a commendable job of telling their stories, especially April L. Hernandez as the tough, hardened Eva. But Swank is barely tolerable. Her Gruwell is young and determined, but also impossibly, unbelievably and laughably green, and not merely because the silly white girl misuses slang. (At one point she says, "my badness" instead of "my bad." Oh, c'mon.)

Swank is no stranger to playing the naive-enthusiasm-turned-to-grit bit. It worked wonders in Million Dollar Baby and was heartbreaking in Boys Don't Cry. In Freedom Writers, it's nails on chalkboard.

Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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