Freedom Writers Richard LaGravenese

Freedom Writers could have been another hokey, predictable "teacher does good” tale but some remarkable performances give the film heart and dimension. Based on a true story, optimistic high school English teacher Erin Gruwell inspires her integrated inner-city class (who are living poor in the wake of the Rodney King trial riots in L.A.) to overcome racial hatred and institutional neglect and find common ground. Oscar-winner Hilary Swank plays Gruwell, infusing the character with both white bread dorkiness and a steely resolve to educate and lift these students out of the depths of their misery despite roadblocks and the resentment from her fellow teachers and even her own husband. Facing off against a segregated class of full-fledged gang bangers and fearful, gun-toting kids mistrustful of every race but their own, Gruwell assigns each of them the task of writing one diary entry every day about whatever they wish. Not used to being invited to express themselves, the teenagers pour their hearts out, detailing horrific personal stories of abuse, death and paranoia (which would eventually be published as the best-seller The Freedom Writers Diary). Gruwell soon draws an oddly effective parallel between L.A.’s murderous gangland and the rise of the Nazis and the Holocaust. For students forgotten by their educational system, the history lesson is a revelation and they identify with the victims of racial intolerance and connect the brute force of the Nazis with that of the L.A.P.D. and gang lords. The somewhat convoluted comparison is actually rendered clearly by this astounding cast of unknowns. In the commentary track and various special features, director Richard Lagravenese discusses the significance of rendering this story as realistically as possible, casting first-time actors whose own lives paralleled those of the original "Freedom Writers.” Grunwell herself is on-hand to lend her insight to Swank and the cast about how the depictions played out in real life. In a sense, Swank serves as a role model for the actors, just as Gruwell did for her students and, similarly, the intense bonding led to the telling of a compelling story. Plus: deleted scenes, featurettes, photo gallery, trailer. (Paramount)