2007Director: Richard LaGravenese
Cast: Hilary Swank, Patrick Dempsey, Scott Glenn
atching a film like Freedom Writers reminded me of Syd Field. Who is Syd Field, you ask? Think of the pompous screenwriting coach played so appropriately by Brian Cox in Adaptation and you get a pretty good idea of who Syd Field is and what he represents. I unwisely took a course in screenwriting once and I can safely say that it ranks among the worst experiences of my life. Pragmatic and soulless in equal measure, the screenwriting “experts” who taught the class jammed that whole three act structure down the our throats until we were coughing up films like Dead Poet’s Society and Gladiator for the rest of eternity. Since then, I’ve learned that good screenwriting can’t be taught by such conventional means. While one can easily create a template for box-office success, it typically comes at the expense of artistic integrity. Think of it this way: a three-act structure, Syd Field screenplay is like slice-and-bake cookies; anyone can make them, but the results are almost always mediocre compared to something made from scratch.
Freedom Writers is based on one of those Syd Field screenplays. The story tells the real life trials and tribulations of Erin Gruwell (played by Hilary Swank), a teacher working in L.A. immediately following the riots. Stationed at an inner city school with minimal expectations from its staff, she takes her class of at-risk students and inspires them to rise above the environment they live in. Sound familiar? It should. The story is an assortment of several different screenplays—all mediocre in themselves—spliced together into what is assured to be the most sappy, contrived piece of shit you will see all year.
It doesn’t help that last year in Ryan Fleck’s Half Nelson we already witnessed an example of the proper way to create a film like this. Freedom Writers simply reverses all the achievements of that film, instead forging a film that plods along from one predictable plot point to another. One of the fundamental flaws in the screenplay involves the decision to somehow force a villain into a film that didn’t necessitate one. Gruwell’s antagonists are an overly pragmatic administrator and an honors teacher who attacks Gruwell for attempting to reach her “animalistic” students. Their candid racism seems dubious, especially when you consider that divulging such appalling viewpoints to a coworker could be detrimental to one’s job security. The film all but supplies these overplayed and extraneous villains with handlebar moustaches to twirl mischievously while cackling about their evil schemes.
Of course, the acting is simply atrocious across the board, most surprisingly from Hilary Swank herself. Swank’s performance should result in her being stripped of all previous Oscars. It’s not merely that she overacts, but does so in such a cringe-inducing way that you have to wonder if perhaps she thought her performance would be viewed as tongue-in-cheek. As Mrs. Gruwell she attempts to bond with her indifferent students in the most mechanical of ways, mangling their slang in a manner that slumps below dialogue similar to a motorized, vacuous sitcom. For example, after embarrassing herself in front of her class she horse laughs about it and blathers out the phrase “my badness!” to which her students correct “Aw, Ms. G, it’s my bad!”
This dialogue cheapens the film, forcing me out of the environment and causing me to ponder the motives behind the film’s creation. Was it for money, or did director Richard LaGravenese really think he’d reach people and provoke social change with something so monotonously boring? The film pulls for the sappy, heartwarming storyline, but doesn’t earn its sentiment. Despite being based on a true story, it contains not on ounce of truth. It doesn’t help that LaGravenese directs as if its real life origin gives the film inherent genuineness. I should mention that the diaries narrated from throughout the film have already been compiled and published in a book. Those looking for an inspiring narrative should probably start there. I don’t doubt that these young men and women have compelling tales to tell, but I feel confident in saying that this film does them no justice.
Freedom Writers is currently playing in wide release.