AMONG the lessons to be learned from the inspiring, feel-good drama "Freedom Writers" is never to underestimate the persuasive powers of Hilary Swank. Even in writer-director Richard LaGravenese's formulaic adaptation of "The Freedom Writers Diary," a compilation of journal entries written by Long Beach high school students, Swank shows that in the right role her unusually disarming talent can elevate routine material.
As real-life teacher Erin Gruwell, Swank enters with coltish enthusiasm, dangerous naivete and a toothsome smile that suggests maybe she isn't up to the task of turning a classroom full of hardened teens, embittered by their hateful environment, into scholars.
Amid the schematic setup of Gruwell attempting to win the trust of the students while overcoming the red tape of the system, something fairly amazing happens. Just as Gruwell the teacher starts to regain her balance after a rocky beginning, Swank the actor likewise kicks into gear, shrugging off the impediments of the stereotypical scenario and turning what might have been a routine, entirely forgettable January release into a surprisingly moving experience.
In scene after scene, it's a marvel to watch Swank determinedly making her case, shrewdly winning over the audience as Gruwell persuades her charges to give her a chance to turn them on to literature, history and the opportunity to share their own narratives. There is a raw, guileless quality to Swank that shreds any hint of condescension or exploitation.
Intoxicated with the possibility of the students succeeding, the character's growing confidence becomes tangible, playing over Swank's face like a kid learning to ride a bike. Initially charming but skittish, Gruwell emerges as a fighter, every bit as resolute as Swank's Maggie Fitzgerald in "Million Dollar Baby."
The film itself, set in the aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, suffers from the over-familiarity one feels toward the whole dedicated-teacher-inspires-students-against-all-odds genre, compounded by fatigue for the telling of minority stories through a white protagonist. Almost evenly divided among Latinos, Cambodians and African Americans (plus one scared-to-death white kid), the class seethes with the racial tension that spills in from the streets outside. The school, epitomized by an obstinate department head (Imelda Staunton) and an imperious honors instructor (John Benjamin Hickey), refuses to "waste" actual books on them, an attitude Gruwell can't abide.
The everyday violence experienced by the students is established as both the stimulus that divides them and the eventual basis for their bonding. Their distrust of the new teacher will be recognizable to anyone who has seen "Dangerous Minds" and any number of other movies and telefilms featuring a crusading teacher and at-risk students.
The individual students emerge more as types than cliches and are mainly distinguishable by the strength of the actors (spotlighted are April Lee Hernandez, Jason Finn and Mario). Some of the actors seem a little old to be playing high schoolers, but that is almost a given for the genre and is likely in part to make the 32-year-old Swank more credible as the fresh-out-of-college Gruwell.
In supporting roles, Patrick Dempsey adds bittersweet wit as Gruwell's neglected husband, and Scott Glenn plays her skeptical father. .
Dramatically, the movie never veers from its predictable course, but Swank's performance renders the point moot. There likely was a better, more original movie to be made focusing more on the Freedom Writers themselves, but if this more conventional direction had to be taken, it's hard to imagine a more affecting version.
"Freedom Writers." MPAA rating: PG-13 for violent content, some thematic material and language. Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes. In general release.