By now, any well-meaning melodrama featuring a crusading educator who helps a classroom of cynical, atrisk minority students rediscover their zest for life is going to strike a routine tone.
After “The Blackboard Jungle,” “Dangerous Minds,” “Stand and Deliver,” ad infinitum, no filmmaker could be expected to reinvent such a promiscuous genre.
So maybe we expect too much from writer-director Richard LaGravanese, he of the Holly Hunter single-gal saga, “Living Out Loud” (1998). His “Freedom Writers” is unctuous, overlong and overnarrated (much like “Living Out Loud,” come to think of it), but not agonizingly so. One might find a few touching moments in this earnest telling of a real-life classroom miracle, and the usual load of hokey white-messiah stuff, as well.
Two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank (“Million Dollar Baby”) plays Erin Gruwell, an idealistic, first-year English lit teacher who marches into Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach, Calif., with dreams of making a difference. Judging from the pitying “it’s-hopeless-honey” look of her department head (Imelda Staunton from “Vera Drake,” in a god-awful, thankless role), it will be a long slog uphill. After integration, “we lost 75 percent of our strongest students,” laments the administrator. It’s not clear if Erin, a preposterously naive Orange County girl, catches the racial euphemism.
In any case, the integration label is a farce. Wilson High’s schoolyard is more segregated than ever, with black, white, Hispanic and Asian students controlling their territories like racial fiefdoms. Violence often erupts, and to Erin’s dismay, it often spills into the classroom. Her 1960s-activistturned-capitalist father (Scott Glenn) is aghast: “With your brains, you could be a CEO!”
Hoping to connect with her freshman students on their “level,” Erin prints out sheets of Tupac lyrics and tries to customize her curriculum (“How about ‘Romeo and Juliet’… that’s a great gang story!”). The kids, to their credit, look at her Barbara Bush pearls and Newport Beach pedigree and see her for the cliche she is. “You don’t know the pain we feel!” spits one gang-banging Hispanic girl (April L. Hernandez), followed by a furious declaration: “I hate white people!”
That’s about as edgy as “Freedom Writers” gets.
Certainly, there’s little unusual or surprising about the drumbeat of formula redemption that follows, involving (in no particular order) Erin’s peevish, jealously burnt-out husband (Patrick Dempsey, reminding us why we found him irritating in the first place), a series of classroom togetherness drills (designed to show the kids that they’re all cut from the same, shellshocked cloth) and no end of bureaucratic hand-tying. Frustrated, Erin takes a couple of extra jobs to pay for her own classroom books, including Anne Frank’s “The Diary of a Young Girl,” which leads to an eye-opening field trip to the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
As a filmmaker, one does not march out the Simon Wiesenthal Center without betraying a heavy hand, and LaGravanese, once Hollywood’s goto serious-drama screenwriter (“The Bridges of Madison County”), seems to have lost his light touch.
In building something much more than English class — an extended family, a community-minded support group — Erin comes off looking like a Svengali. Privy to the students’ innermost thoughts and secret shames via journals she makes them keep, later published as a book that inspired the screenplay, she is as much life coach as educator. Getting in their faces, that kind of thing.
Maybe that’s just what this particular group of depressed, dispossessed children need. But when Erin lobbies to change school district policy so she can keep the same group of kids all four years, it’s more than just low-stakes drama. It’s creepy codependency.
‘Freedom Writers’ Starring: Hilary Swank, Patrick Dempsey, Scott Glenn, Imelda Staunton Rating: PG-13 (violent content, some thematic material and language) Running time: 123 minutes Playing: Opens today in Valley theaters Grade: C-