There are a million stories in the inner city, including horrific vignettes of gang violence and poverty that never get a chance to be heard. Erin Gruwell (Swank), a rookie Southern California high-school teacher, wanted to change that, so she gave her volatile, at-risk students journals in which to write about their experiences growing up hard. Suddenly, racial tensions within the ethnically mixed microcosm of their English class cooled and dead-end kids were given a second chance; Gruwell even published the collected diaries as a book in 1999.
It’s an inspiring tale, certainly, but as anybody who frequents the moving pictures knows, these ingredients thrown together onscreen usually translate into a diabetic death knell. Sure enough, Richard LaGravenese’s movie is a prime example of why filmgoers reflexively wince when they hear the phrase based on a true story. Every ounce of congealed sentimentality in Gruwell’s real-life fable is sapped out and rendered in the broadest populist strokes possible. Why tug heartstrings when you can pluck them out and run them over with a truck?
A determination to forcefully uplift audiences with emotional cheap shots is one thing, but what’s unforgivable is the dramatic laziness on display. Everybody is reduced to poorly sketched caricatures of ghetto teens or racist authority figures (poor Imelda Staunton), while the Oscar-winning actor simply fans the role’s martyrdom flames and recasts the movie as To Swank, with Love. Gruwell may be an extraordinary figure, but in suffocatingly sticking to the teacher-who-changed-my-life template, Freedom Writers makes her into just another clich. (Opens Fri; Click here for venues.) — David Fear