Freedom Writers

dir: Richard LaGravenese
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If you ever desperately prayed for a way in which to figure out just how cynical and jaded you’ve become in your stinky old age, you need to watch a flick like Freedom Writers as the true test. It’s a perfect gauge of where on the miserable old bastard scale you currently reside.

The thing is, though, it’s such a finely tuned, sensitive Geiger counter of a test that I’m not sure how many will come out smelling of roses. I think even Mother Theresa would come out of it looking bad.

The premise, which is prefaced with those dreaded words “Based on a true story”, is that in the aftermath of the Rodney King riots, a young idealistic teacher (Hillary Swank) tries to teach some underprivileged kids at an urban school whose life expectancies are akin to that of grams of drugs around AFL footballers: they’re not going to last very long at all.

Erin Gruwell starts off all sunshine and light, and remains all sunshine and light throughout. She cares about the kids right from the start, but her character arc is that she has to learn to speak to them about life in a way that doesn’t condescend and that appreciates the war-torn realm in which they live their lives. How will she achieve the seemingly impossible? By getting them to read The Diary of Ann Frank.

If you believe the story, 1994 Los Angeles is a war zone worse than Bosnia Herzegovina and Rwanda all rolled up into one. Gang violence between Latinos, Bloods and Crips, and Cambodians, of all people, is killing scores of kids every day. It’s a war zone, dog. And these thirteen, fourteen-year-old kids are soldiers in this war. According to the overwrought dialogue that keeps spilling from their mouths, at least.

There’s something almost laughable about the task Teacher Gruwell sets herself. The kids are virtually written off already by teachers that loathe them, a school that chooses to focus its meagre resources on the few kids (mostly white) who have any chance at academic achievement down the track, and a Board of Education as useless as any other bureaucracy, if not more so.

And Erin, oh Erin. She’s so painfully noble that she makes Florence Nightingale look like a greedy, selfish whore. She makes Mother Theresa look like Maggie Thatcher. Despite being a teacher with virtually no experience as a teacher, and with no experience in anything that would be helpful in any way, only she is committed enough and caring enough to give these kids the chance they so clearly deserve. She ends up working two other jobs on top of her teaching in order to help her kids: that’s how committed she is. Can someone just wrest the Nobel Peace prize out of Al Gore’s chubby hands and give it to her already?

Inner city, under-resourced public schools? Mainly minority poor students? A teacher prepared to give her all to help the kids? Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

No, there’s no stage at which Coolio’s Gangsta’s Paradise plays repeatedly in the background, but you could be forgiven for expecting it. And maybe it doesn’t star Michelle Perfifer, as Dangerous Minds did, but it might as well have. Flicks like this were a dime a dozen back in the 80s and 90s, and to make one these days for cinematic release, let alone as Oscarbait with a two-time Best Actress winner in the role, seems like the actions of optimistic people who are on permanent leave from reality.

I mean, who the hell do they think they are putting together an after-school special of this magnitude? It’s so idealistic, so earnest, so goddamn wholesome that you feel like doing drugs or punching a puppy just to feel normal again afterwards.

The character of the teacher is so fucking wonderful that she doesn’t seem like a real human woman. She’s so goddamn earnest that it makes your teeth ache as if you’d just gorged headfirst in a feedbag full of raw sugar.

When she starts trying to convince her young charges that their ethnic / tribal identifications, and the demonisation of their perceived racial enemies can lead to genocides like the Holocaust, I had to re-wire my jaw after it hit the floor. When the kids actually start to understand their problems, and their prejudices through the eyes of Ann Frank and her experiences hiding from the Nazis during World War II, I couldn’t stop myself from yelling “I see it, but I don’t believe it” at the screen numerous.

Throughout all this, the kids keep muttering about their difficult lives, dodging bullets and violent step-parents, and going to great lengths to now see the world through Grunwell’s eyes, even as she remains so high above the fray that she’s tasting clouds.

Everyone except her nemesis rival teacher (Imelda Staunton) comes to realise that she’s right about everything and they’re wrong. Even her long-suffering husband (Patrick Dempsey) eventually can’t stand the sight of her, disgusted with himself for no longer being able to love this absolute goddamn saint. She is so ‘Aw shucks, golly gee’ that you’re amazed that her own co-workers don't punch her in the face in frustration.

The fact that the story is true (however much of it is) goes some way towards alleviating the persistent cloying sensation that you’re trapped in a moving Hallmark card, but then again maybe it just amplifies it. When I said at review’s beginning that films like this are a litmus test of how cynical you’ve become as a person, I wasn’t exaggerating. The fact is, I am too cynical to appreciate a flick like this without wanting to tear it to pieces, and that probably says more about me than it does the flick.

I applaud what she attempted and achieved with these kids. I admire her for her incredible achievements, and for not giving up where plenty of others would and did. I am in awe of anyone who can teach kids and make a difference in their lives when the odds are stacked up so conclusively against them striving for anything. I really do.

But the film to me seemed less grounded in Earth reality than the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy. Even if I derived enjoyment and even a few tears from this flick, I still acknowledge that this makes me a very bad person. Allow me to comfort myself with my panda blanket and give me some time to dry my eyes with tissues made from freshly clubbed baby seal skins. I’ll get over it, and so will you

6 times I can’t believe no-one shot her when she said “What, are you trippin?” in the whitest way possible out of 10

“Does anyone know Homer's the Odyssey? “
- “I know Homer the Simpson.” Freedom Writers.