Freedom Writers is a movie about inspiration. It is not inspirational.
I write those words with great disappointment, as I believe its writer/director Richard LaGravenese is capable of wonderful things. His script for The Fisher King – while unwieldy and overwrought and pulled in six different directions at the best of times – was and is a joy to watch. The Fisher King is a good place to start in saying what goes wrong with Freedom Writers because it offers an excellent example of a movie that, for all its faults, risks something. Freedom Writers fails because it’s cautious.
But the movie does not start cautiously. We begin with a young Hispanic girl staring up at a rack of Barbie dolls. She tells us, in voice-over: “In America, a princess is prized for her beauty and her grace. But an Aztec princess is prized for her blood.” These are not the words of a movie that isn’t about to risk anything. And maybe it’s that – that deceit, that false-promise that rankles. A movie that begins with these words should be the Once Upon a Time in America of high-school movies. There is a sense of gravity, of fatalism – of surprise to these words that Freedom Writers simply abandons in everything that comes after. The fact that the movie isn’t even about this girl is maybe the biggest misjudgement. Instead, we are introduced to Hillary Swank, dressed like a Republican, acting like an über-liberal, all teeth and tenacious optimism. Swank has come for interview at a war-torn Los Angeles high-school. She speaks the way she’ll speak for the duration of the movie, like a self-help tape.
The movie is based on the real-life story of Los Angeles high-school teacher Erin Gruwell, who apparently acted like Swank for a year and managed to inspire a class of 14 to 15 year olds who grew-up to the sound of gunfire. That Gruwell achieved something good is not in question. That she achieved it by doing, saying or acting anything like Hillary Swank seems incredible. But as I say, maybe it’s the lack of risk that robs the movie of credibility. Because it isn’t that I doubt that Gruwell taught her teenage students using the methods Swank uses, what I doubt is that the end result was never in question.
Freedom Writers is like a lot of Hollywood movies about inspiration, it’s so desperate for the audience to start feeling good that it never lets them feel anything else. For this movie to work we’ve got to feel the rage of these students, there has to be a sense that they hate their teacher – with all the hate that an Aztec princess would bring to bear on a Republican housewife. These worlds shouldn’t knit. That’s what the movie refuses to face. It wants to narrow the gap between Swank and her charges so quickly that we’re scarcely aware a gap exists. But drama exists in division. This film should be nine tenths a fight.
Look at what works and what doesn’t ring-true becomes obvious. Swank’s relationship with her husband works because they divorce. Of course they divorce. To be married to Erin Gruwell as Erin is portrayed would be like being married to Lincoln if he lived up to the myth. She is a saint who works 15-hour shifts and bleeds ticks for her students. Her scenes with her husband are great because Patrick Dempsey takes a man Erin would see as a shit and makes him into us – the mere mortals in the audience, tired of watching her succeed and say the right thing. April Hernandez also scratches some dignity from her role (especially impressive given that’s she’s 26 playing 14) as Latina- Boadicea, Eva. There’s a feeling to her acting, and to the role as written, of the potential – and the wish – for tragedy. In a better movie this girl would have almost broken Swank. As it is, she growls, but she seems to know who she is (and isn’t) allowed to bite.
Freedom Writers isn’t a small movie because the budget or the subject was small; it’s small because it wants to conform. It treats Erin Gruwell’s hard-earned victory like a fait accompli and the miraculous turn-around in her students’ attitude like a simple change of heart. This movie should have prized blood.