I'll admit I had great trepidation about seeing another in that long and inglorious line of films about how a great white teacher brings her poor black (in this case also latino and asian) students, whom everyone else had given up on, into the light of success, health and happiness. But even though I held my nose as I went in, I came out blowing it to clear the tears I'd shed as I watched the film.
First, it's a true story, of Erin Gruwell, a young high school teacher starting out in 1993 in Long Beach, California, with an angry, sullen, impossible class of freshmen. Naive, eager, bright, and willing to listen and learn, Gruwell finds a way into these students' lives, ultimately through acquainting them with the Holocaust and helping them relate it to their own fears and rage.
Hilary Swank, the most unactorly of stars, is Gruwell, and writer-director Richard LaGravenese - not my favorite after the dreadful "The Horse Whisperer" and "Beloved" - has used a good documentary-like approach here to show us the growing bonds between Swank and her students. Life for children like these is like hanging on to a tightrope between death in the gangs and death as a bystander, to say nothing of the slower death that comes from living in a totally dysfunctional family - or none at all.
The film follows Gruwell and the students for two years, as freshmen and sophomores, in the course of which she discovers the miraculous effect of having each of them write a journal. Slowly they begin opening themselves up to their thoughts and writings, and learning that they are not alone. With the journals and other gifts, Gruwell is able to help them find that they're bright, they're talented, they're normal, and they're entitled to live a decent life.
Gruwell takes a second, then a third job to help pay for books, trips and the like. They read the Diary of Anne Frank, and she takes them to the Holocaust museum at the Wiesenthal Center; they'd never heard of the Holocaust. And then - an amazing stroke - they invite Miep Gies, the woman who hid the Franks, to come and talk to them. It's one of the great, cathartic moments for me in films. Pat Carroll, the actress who plays Miep, is astounding.
So is the film perfect? Unfortunately, LaGravenese insists on making the other adults into caricatures, from Gruwell's selfish husband, played by Patrick Dempsey, to her department head, Imelda Staunton, who struggles with her American accent and ends up as a bigoted harriden. We shudder every time Swank is called into a meeting with anyone but her kids. But then she's back again with them, and the world looks a little bit better. "Freedom Writers" is a sleeper of a film that deserves to be seen by all of us.