It’s a story so familiar that it constitutes its own genre –
the Classroom Drama, in which a naïve but relentlessly idealistic teacher takes
on a cast of students schooled in the harsh realities of the streets. At first,
her efforts are met with indifference and bitter skepticism, but her
persistence pays dividends. After a rough hazing period, the new teacher wins
some grudging respect, and before long, the classroom is her pulpit, and the
students her adoring choir.
It’s another underdog parable, the Rocky formula applied in
an arena that is slightly less violent but no less hostile. In Freedom Writers,
Hilary Swank plays Erin Gruwell, a teacher whose resolve is steely enough to
overshadow her inexperience and lack of street savvy. And her methods are unorthodox
but effective, gradually transforming a Long Beach classroom divided by racial
tension into a refuge for students eager to learn.
Gruwell’s triumph is based on a true story,
of course, but
we’ve seen this character before, in movies like Dangerous Minds and Stand and
Deliver. No matter. Director Richard LaGravenese’s screenplay, adapted from a
published series of student diaries, strikes a nerve because it doesn’t focus
exclusively on Gruwell’s heroism. It pays just as close attention to the kids, and
it knows their language. When LaGravenese steps back and allows them to tell
the story, in words lifted directly from those diaries, Freedom Writers
achieves an authenticity and grace that transcends Hollywood formula. It works.