A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that, thanks to its hip-hop soundtrack and rebellious teen characters, this drama about high school students will appeal to many kids. It deals with some mature themes -- gang violence, loss of a friend or family member, the Holocaust -- in tasteful, if formulaic, ways. Violent scenes include fighting on campus and a street shooting (a boy is killed, his bloody chest visible). Kids argue with each other and their teacher, disrespecting her verbally and laughing at her. Students discuss the Holocaust, Anne Frank, and meet a survivor who describes her ordeal. Students write about their losses in their journals, which the teacher reads out loud or in voiceover (these are sad moments). Language includes several uses of "s--t," "damn," and one use of the n-word in anger (the context is a student journal description of police abuses).
What's the story?
In FREEDOM WRITERS, enthusiastic and innocent teacher Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank) arrives at a high school in Long Beach just after the L.A. uprising in 1992, aiming to follow in her civil rights activist father's footsteps. Erin's first few days at school are daunting: She witnesses a fight, sees a boy pull out a gun, and endures taunts from her students, who see themselves as their other teachers see them: the "ghetto-ass class" unworthy of attention or time. Erin is also discouraged by her cynical colleagues but she persists, seeking ways to connect with her students. Finally, one of them -- distrustful Eva (April Lee Hernandez) -- explains her rage: "White people running this world," she says. "I saw white cops shoot my friend in the back for reaching into his pocket. They can because they're white. I hate white people on sight." Erin realizes that since her students self-segregate by race, they never learn one another's stories. So, she has them stand together in the classroom when they've shared an experience, like losing a friend to violence. They begin to recognize their similarities. As the students write about their lives in a "war zone," Erin also has them visit L.A.'s Holocaust museum and read Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. Moved by Frank's story, the kids raise money to bring Miep Gies (Pat Carroll), the woman who hid Frank from the Nazis, to campus.
Is it any good?
This deeply earnest drama follows a familiar storyline. An idealistic young teacher inspires her "at-risk" urban students to respect each other and themselves. She's white, they're mostly of color; she's clueless about their harsh lives, they initially resent her cluelessness but learn to appreciate her efforts to understand them. It's this last part that makes director Richard LaGravenese's film work, despite its many clichés. Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank) makes a difference by asking her students to talk to her and each other -- and acting on what they say.
The plot is predicable, the actors too old to play high school students, and the pacing too slow. And really, the camera circles around deep-thinking faces a few too many times. But Freedom Writers also argues for listening to teenagers. That in itself makes it a rare and close-to-wonderful thing.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the way that Erin engages her students -- by listening to them. How is this an effective way to teach? How do the students learn from one other when they share their stories? How is the Holocaust a helpful historical example for these "at-risk" students? What do they learn from Anne Frank's ability to see beauty in the world even in her bleak situation? How does Erin's dedication to her students affect her personal life? What other movies is this one similar to? What sets it apart?
- In theaters: January 4, 2007
- On DVD or streaming: April 17, 2007
- Cast: Hilary Swank, Imelda Staunton, Patrick Dempsey
- Director: Richard LaGravenese
- Studio: Paramount Pictures
- Genre: Drama
- Run time: 123 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: violent content, some thematic material and language.
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