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Thursday, 18 May 2017

Retro Review: Freedom Writers (2007)

Freedom Writers
Cast: Hilary Swank, Scott Glenn, Imelda Staunton, Patrick Dempsey, Mario
Genre: Drama
Worldwide Box Office Gross: over $43 million

Plot: A young teacher inspires her class of at-risk students to learn about tolerance, to apply themselves and pursue education beyond high school

'Barely Makes The Grade'

I was actually looking forward to Freedom Writers given the appraisal it has received, having enjoyed some of Hilary Swank's performances and having seen its respectable IMDb score and so going into the film, I was actually disappointed that this movie didn't grab me like Dangerous Minds did and that Swank's character lacked more passion, conviction and tenacity that Michelle Pfieffer's Louanne Johnston conveyed on screen. 

Freedom Writers is, personally speaking, a watered down version of that film that also is a bit too treacle-ly/syrupy than it needs to be. 

Inexperienced teacher Erin Gruwell is roped in to teach English to a class of troubled students hailing from various social & ethnic backgrounds; some of whom are in gangs. The plot reads more along the lines of Dangerous Minds mixed in with Dead Poets Society

Patrick Dempsey is sidelined and he is one of those actors who gets ample screen-time on TV on Grey's Anatomy but gets bit-part roles in movies. Here, he plays the husband, Scott who acts more of a douche-bag and becomes less supportive of Erin and her efforts at being a good teacher. 

I was expecting a lot more from this movie, and better as well, coming from the writer of The Fisher King, but with its co-production values from MTV, it certainly leans more towards TV territory. The gang and violent scenes may be gritty in places, but the story is weak and not very engrossing. But for Swank's character, though more of the spotlight is shone on the pupils, I actually found their individual storylines to be not very interesting, in the way they were told onscreen. Freedom Writers focuses a bit too much on Erin, her life outside of teaching, in addition to her relationship with Scott, whilst the students' storylines are boring and way too underdeveloped. 

The film does share many similarities with Dangerous Minds, but the one difference Freedom Writers has compared to Dangerous Minds is that the class of students are more ethnically diverse; there are a few more Asian faces, alongside the Latinos and African Americans.

I understand the complaints about Hollywood's obsession with having the White teacher hailed as a saviour and of whom changes the lives of the multi-ethnic students, and though whilst it has some merit, I'm not actually fussed about this. 

Hilary Swank impressed me with her performance - yet it is a shame that she was laboured with a screenplay that lacked potency and real in-yer-face moments that Freedom Writers needed more of. It's nice to see her in a film such as this, but the way it was conceived by the director and writer didn't do Swank many favours. This is another case where an actor/actresses' acting trumps the screenplay. 

Dangerous Minds may have also received mixed to lukewarm to mediocre reviews from professional critics, but the way that film drilled home that message and told Louanne's story (as skewed and inaccurate in places as it may be), along with the movie's heightened tension on occasions and Michelle Pfieffer's impressive turn, is why it struck a chord with me and its audiences, and why that film still does so today. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for Freedom Writers: I guess that style of film-making approach it took with this film did give me mixed signals. Yet the strength, the believability and of the story, other characters but for Erin, just never made a massive impact on me wanting to love it. 

Final Verdict

There is nothing new we haven't seen before in Freedom Writers that was in Dangerous Minds, To Sir With Love, Take The Lead, Dead Poets Society. Mona Lisa Smile to name but many that is in Freedom Writers. Fish-out-of-water movies with the inspirational teacher making a difference in the students' lives. 

Yes it is earnest and it has good intentions, but it is often too earnest that is also in need of more of that gritty determination and tenacity to push this film forward. Where's the realism, grit? For all of its hip-hop happenings and urban flavour, I actually found Freedom Writers is mostly too safe, vanilla, square and dry. Swank's solid conviction is what holds this film together. 

Without it, it would be nowhere as watchable, never mind memorable. It's definitely a rental for me and I'd still opt for Dangerous Minds over this offering.

Freedom Writers is a Dangerous Minds wannabe - and a weak one as well. 


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