If I tell you the premise of this movie it is going to sound awfully familiar. There’s an inner city high school, plagued by gang violence. Within that school there are some kids who are considered the worst of the worst. A bright, enthusiastic but naive young teacher is assigned to teach them. At first they treat her with disdain, but she gradually wins them over, teaches them to respect themselves and turns their lives around.
Hollywood manages to release a movie like this every few years, all supposedly based on a true story. Take the Lead was one of the most recent (and most ridiculous.) The classic of the genre has to be To Sir with Love (1967).
(There is probably a reason for this beyond the mere sentimental appeal of the concept. I’m sure it’s true that a sufficiently talented and dedicated teacher can make an enormous difference in the lives of at least some students. The trouble is that when you package up the same techniques and tell bored time-servers to use them, they prove totally ineffective. It would be better if we could just create a school system that didn’t crush the life out of those dedicated young teachers when they show up.)
In any case my general rule when faced with a movie that claims to be “based on a true story” is to assume that a Hollywood screenwriter couldn’t tell the truth if you put a gun to his head, and to do my best to evaluate the movie as a work of fiction. So how does Freedom Writers stack up on that basis?
It’s pretty good, but not perfect. Some of the scenes work really well; others seem a bit cloying or contrived. Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank) comes off as impossibly saintly, but if I were to ding a movie for having a hero who is larger than life, then I guess I would have to stop writing anime reviews. Some of the most telling scenes show the hostility that Ms. Gruwell gets from the other teachers who feel that she is making them look bad and upsetting their well-oiled seniority system.
One minor detail hints at the actual significance of the story. At the beginning of the movie Ms Gruwell is told that she will be teaching 150 “hopeless” students in four classes. During the movie she appears to be teaching only one class of about 30 students, all of whom apparently graduate and go on to college. The actual graduation picture shown before the end credits appears to include about 40 students. So of the original 150 “hopeless” students, perhaps 40 stuck with the program and graduated. That’s not a world-changing breakthrough, but it’s nothing to sneer at either.