Positioned as a diatribe on the abysmal state of the American education system and gang violence around Long Beach, California, Freedom Writers is based on the true story of neophyte high school teacher Erin Gruwell (Hillary Swank), who broke with curriculum convention to inspire her troubled students during the mid-1990s.
Writer/director Richard LaGravenese milks audience empathy with so much voice-over narration that he may as well have recorded the story as a books-on-tape product. Swank's starry-eyed character assigns her students to keep diaries about their lives, and teaches lessons about the Holocaust via The Diary of Anne Frank to give them a sense of place and decency. Compared to a film like Boyz N the Hood, this is cinema activism lite. Imelda Staunton (Vera Drake) gives an outstanding performance as the school's status quo-keeping principal, whose privately racist agenda is eaten away at by Gruwell's profound efforts with her class. In 1999 Erin Gruwell published the students' work as The Freedom Writers Diary.
Hillary Swank is credited as a producer, and it seems that the Oscar-winning actress chose Freedom Writers as a leading-role showcase in spite of its formulaic sappiness. Even with a nonsupportive husband (Patrick Dempsey) and rigid school board protocol, Swank's Erin Gruwell comes off as condescending when she should be seen as a fighter. LaGravenese's cookie-cutter screenplay, with its thinly sketched subplots that teeter toward sentimentality, doesn't help Swank's cherry-pie performance.
Most disagreeable is the way the Holocaust is referenced as being somehow synonymous with the violent tribulations of the African-American, Hispanic and Asian students' lives outside Gruwell's unifying classroom. The story hangs on a payoff scene during a school event when Miep Gies (Pat Carroll), the woman who helped hide the Frank family, visits Gruwell's class to answer questions and share her experiences with Anne Frank. Because we never hear Gruwell lecture on how she views a connection between the Holocaust and her students' violent lives, the audience has little context for the pivotal scene other than to sense an abstract similarity between WWII and gang violence in Los Angeles.
LaGravenese (The Horse Whisperer) has a tendency to sanitize every scene, and when he hits the audience's emotional sweet spot and a few tears begin to flow, you have the feeling that the release is unjustified. The film succeeds in an incidental way by raising issues, however vaguely, of how scholastic public policy conspires against all students in American public schools. But Freedom Writers is a movie that pretends to be much more than it is. There isn't a second of immediacy in the picture, and its theatrical tone and shortcut plotting make it a blankly rewarding entertainment experience.