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Freedom Writers

A Stylish Return to the School of Hard Knocks

It’s a story so familiar that it constitutes its own genre -- the Classroom Drama, in which a naďve but relentlessly idealistic teacher takes on a cast of students schooled in the harsh realities of the streets. At first, her efforts are met with indifference and bitter skepticism, but her persistence pays dividends. After a rough hazing period, the new teacher wins some begrudging respect, and before long, the classroom is her pulpit, and the students her adoring congregation.

It’s another underdog parable, the Rocky formula applied in an arena that is slightly less violent but no less hostile. In Freedom Writers, Hilary Swank plays Erin Gruwell, a teacher whose resolve is steely enough to overshadow her inexperience and lack of street savvy. And her methods are unorthodox but effective, gradually transforming a Long Beach classroom divided by racial tension into a refuge for students eager to learn.

Gruwell’s triumph is based on a true story, of course, but we’ve seen this character before, in movies like Dangerous Minds and Stand and Deliver. No matter. Director Richard LaGravenese’s screenplay, adapted from a published series of student diaries, strikes a nerve because it doesn’t focus exclusively on Gruwell’s heroism. It pays just as close attention to the kids, and it knows their language. When LaGravenese steps back and allows them to tell the story, in words lifted directly from those diaries, Freedom Writers achieves an authenticity and grace that transcends Hollywood formula. It works.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars