“I am not letting you fail. Even if that means coming to your house every night until you finish the work. I see who you are. Do you understand me? I can see you. And you are not failing.” – Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank)
Teachers, pay attention, because Freedom Writers is a manual of “dos” and “don’ts” for educators handling tricky students. Everyone else, prepare to be inspired by a new-to-the-field English instructor’s passion for her craft and her kids.
The students of Woodrow Wilson High School live in a warzone. Set in mid-1990s Los Angeles, Freedom Writers tells the story of a class of teenagers trying to survive the gang mentality that follows them through the streets and into their classroom. Their new teacher, Erin Gruwell, faces another battle — that with her students to get them to put aside their differences and care about their schoolwork, and another with the administration, which is so jaded regarding their minority students that they have given up entirely on that portion of the student body. Slowly she gets her class to open up and see more similarities between themselves, which in turn engages them in learning. The keystone project “Ms. G” assigns is to write in a diary every day about their pasts, presents and futures, and their entries become a book titled The Freedom Writers Diary.
Hilary Swank turns in a performance as Ms. G that’s on par with Edward James Olmos’ portrayal of Jaime Escalante in another educational-underdog story, Stand and Deliver. Her students, played by relatively unknown actors, also make the grade as deeper than they seem. The beginning scenes of their chaotic classroom, marred by racist drawings and ethnic boundaries, seem cliché — how often have movies portrayed disorderly classes? — but the ensemble’s ability to collaboratively develop as Ms. G affects them shows their capabilities as a group of actors and makes the story fun to watch. The choice on the screenwriter’s part to focus only half of the movie on how the classmates warm to their peers makes the story seem less like education-based films that often end with such change.
Not that Freedom Writerscoasts after the halfway point. Ms. G’s own demons come into play in the form of her semi-supportive husband (Patrick Demsey) and the glutted faculty (headed by Imelda Staunton playing the muggle version of Dolores Umbridge). Everyone questions her motives for taking on extra jobs and devoting her entire life to the kids. When the woman who hid Anne Frank’s family visits Erin Gruwell’s sophomore class, one of the students tells her that she is his hero. She replies, saying that her actions weren’t heroics: “I did what I had to do because it was the right thing to do.” Although Ms. G never says so, it’s clear that she feels the same way about her students as Miep Gies felt about the Franks. Giving them a chance at a better life is simply “the right thing to do.”