Refresher course

Rated 3.0

Same old story, different cast. But who doesn’t love watching an unprepared teacher resort to untraditional methods in order to reach a bunch of underachieving students? It’s been done before, and that’s OK—but it’s also been done better.

In the most recent at-risk teen drama (based on a true story), Hilary Swank plays Erin Gruwell, a young, naïve, first-time English teacher in rough-and-tough Long Beach. She is overly excited about her new job, even when she learns that her students are a bunch of gangbangers, half of whom read at a fifth-grade level. She gets the obligatory “you don’t understand our world” speech from the teens, and in response hands out journals and asks that everyone write something—anything—every day. Parts of the movie are even told through the students’ journal entries—offering a glimpse into their “world.”

It turns out in Long Beach, everything is about race. I have no doubt such issues exist, but the movie seems to blow them out of proportion.

The same goes for the administration’s resistance to helping Gruwell. She’s unable to get adequate books ("They can’t read The Diary of Anne Frank!” “Oh yes, they can!” she retorts. And they do, naturally, after she gets a few side jobs to pay for the books herself.) And her supervisor, played by Imelda Staunton, is such a crazed bitch (in one scene she practically breathes fire, she’s so angry that Gruwell is actually succeeding) that it’s hard to believe the real Gruwell put up with such resistance.

There are shining moments, of course. The middle chunk of the movie, in fact, is filled with them. Gruwell’s annoying naïveté in the beginning quickly turns to hard-working determination. Her slogan is “change” (while Michelle Pfeiffer’s was “choice” in Dangerous Minds), and once she gets the students to open up to her—and in turn, each other—in their journals, the movie really gets rolling.

The students are the stars in Freedom Writers (it’s not Swank’s finest work, and Patrick Dempsey, who plays her husband, is miserably flat). R&B singer Mario and April L. Hernandez (who interestingly started out as a stand-up comic) are convincing as teen thugs and ultimately are the ones we end up caring about. And since we end up caring about them, and it’s been 10 years since their real-life counterparts were in school, a “where are they now” segment at the end would have been nice. I’ll keep my fingers crossed for a DVD extra.