How to tame a wild gangbanger

Carly at the Movies column by Carl Larsen

If you do choose to see the new Hilary Swank movie “Freedom Writers,” be prepared for yet another dangerous journey by a noble teacher who is surrounded by savage, ‘tude-filled students, deep in the heart of the Blackboard Jungle.

Also be prepared for another marvelously convincing performance by Ms. Swank. She really makes you believe that she believes that malicious gangbangin’ street kids can be turned into polite, useful citizens.

Although it’s a cut above most of the Saintly-Teacher-Saves-Students epics of recent years, it follows the same improbable formula. Defenders of the film will immediately remind you that it’s based on the true story of Long Beach (Calif.) school teacher Erin Gruwell. Can’t argue with that. Swank plays a brand-new teacher, brimming over with idealism when she starts work at a Long Beach high school. All the other teachers, of course, are skeptical, rotten, and just as evil as teachers really are. In fact, besides Ms. Swank, just about the only other decent human in the movie is her hubby, played by Patrick Dempsey (who explores Grey’s Anatomy as Dr. McDreamy on TV). And even he gives up.

Scott Glenn plays her father, who only wants her to survive at first, but ends up her head cheerleader. Of course. The gang of improbably dreadful teachers are monsterminded by Imelda (no relation) Staunton and John Benjamin Hickey. They’re absolutely icky. The kids, super-tough survivors of their nightmare environment, are chillingly violent, mostly illiterate, and only slightly too old to be playing high-school students. April Lee Hernandez, Mario Barrett and a crowd of other twentysomethings are grimly convincing as the street hoods barely enduring their brief incarceration as students. Yes, they live in a veritable war zone, with little chance of a better life. Every major city in America has the same problem. Pretty grim stuff.

Now for the good part. Hilary Swank is so unwavering in her belief that you kind of begin to think she can save these poor lost souls. And, using The Diary of Anne Frank as a teaching inspiration, she convinces the students to start keeping journals. O.K., so that stretches it a bit, but remember: This really happened. (And real-life teacher Gruwell was twice named California Teacher of the Year.)

There are a good many appropriate barbs at a system that warehouses rather than educates along the glory road, but writer/director Richard LaGravanese aptly juggles several balls of schmaltz and soon enough has our voices cheering and our eyes tearing. He’s a master at walking that soapy tightrope, having written the screenplays for “The Bridges of Madison County” (1995), “Beloved” (1998) and several other big screen meller-drammers.

Is it worth seeing? Well, even though I found parts of it as hard to swallow as one of my grandma’s iron-clad dumplings, “Freedom Writers” is worthwhile. In that unpleasant world of sullen, tribal malcontents that roam the ghetto streets, there lurks hope. And very occasionally, teachers like Erin Gruwell do come along to face down a cynical and despairing administration and elevate some of the students.

I have always believed that teaching is a noble profession. This film, despite my skepticism, proves it once again.

Meanwhile, Back at the Dixie:

The screens over at the Dixie in downtown Staunton are jumping with recently-released flicks. “Happily N’Ever After,” for instance, is another animated entry from the “Shrek” school of smart-aleckness with a top-notch voice cast that includes Sigorney Weaver. “We Are Marshall” recounts the courage and bravery displayed after the horrendous airplane crash that killed the Marshall football team. “The Good Shepherd” with Matt Damon chronicles the historic beginnings of the CIA, and “Blood Diamond” with Leonardo DiCaprio has plenty of Oscar Buzz.

 

Carl Larsen is a regular contributor to The New Dominion. Look for his At the Movies column on Mondays.

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