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Movies | Freedom Writers offers a compelling story but no formula for success

Issue: "Hope or hype?," Jan. 20, 2007

One problem veteran moviegoers may have with Freedom Writers (PG-13 for violent content, some thematic material, and language) is that they've seen the movie before. Richard LaGravenese's adaptation of a true story of triumph over gang violence through the heroic works of one educator should remind viewers of the 1995 hit Dangerous Minds or the 1989 film Lean on Me.

In this edition of the genre, two-time Oscar winner Hillary Swank stars as Erin Gruwell, a real-life educator who took her position teaching freshman English at a Long Beach, Calif., high school not as a job, but as a mission.

After several missteps, Gruwell reaches her diverse and troubled students with stories of the Holocaust-an event that seems not to have penetrated the consciousness of the teens. Finally, a combination of learning about the Holocaust through Anne Frank's diary, writing their own stories in journals, and building community in the classroom sets the disadvantaged students free to explore a life beyond pimping and dealing for local gangs.

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If only the formula worked as easily in every classroom as it did in the film. After a bevy of films that purport to show the way to change lives through public education, inner-city schools remain largely unchanged-even worse. A confrontation in the film between Gruwell and a cynical department head proves the point. As Gruwell pushes her brand of unorthodox education, the veteran educator dismisses Gruwell's methods as unrepeatable.

Of course, the cynical department head is probably right. Whatever formula Gruwell stumbled upon in Long Beach can't be bottled and mass-produced. But as Freedom Writers shows the real lives of many inner-city teens thrust into hardships they did not choose, the film gives us reason to empathize.

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