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Freedom Writers: Nothing New, But Still Moving

In my preview of Freedom Writers, I said it was the kind of movie that would either make you weep or roll your eyes. So I should probably confess that I'm one of the weepers; Freedom Writers had me reaching for the tissues more than once.

I may be a sucker, but at least I'm a sucker for a pretty good movie. Yes, it's an inspirational teacher story you've seen before, and yes, it's a little too neat: Once the students have their inevitable breakthrough, violence stops and gangs disappear. But you still root for the tough but vulnerable kids and for their teacher, who swaps her victories in the classroom for failure in her personal life.

Hilary Swank stars as Erin Gruwell, the real-life teacher who started at one of Long Beach's roughest schools in the aftermath of the Rodney King riots. She knows what she's doing is right, she babbles to her boss, because her father worked in the civil rights movement. Her boss doesn't flat-out tell her to can the idealism — but she does suggest that maybe it would be wise if Erin didn't wear pearls to class.

At first, Erin pulls out all the tricks from the Dangerous Minds playbook. She tries teaching poetry by playing Tupac, which gets shrugged off with a snort of "white girl's gonna teach us about rap." She tries telling her students that their racism is just the kind of thing that led to the Holocaust, but one of her students asks, "What's the Holocaust?" That gives Erin an idea, so

Erin decides her students could relate to the story of Anne Frank, so she gives them the book and journals to write in. Through scenes with the students and voiceovers of their writing (which the real Gruwell and her students turned into a book), we see how Anne Frank's story changes them. One drops his gun into a sewer; another makes amends with his mother. The students want Miep Gies, the woman who sheltered Anne Frank, to speak at their school, so they launch a series of fundraisers to reach their goal. I dare you not to cry when Gies (played by Pat Carroll) walks in.

One of the most refreshing parts of Freedom Writers is that Swank's Erin isn't some perfect savior. I could have done without the Erin-fights-the-administration subplot, which adds nothing to the movie and is clearly going to end in victory from the second it's introduced. More interesting is how her work wrecks her home life, as she takes a second and then a third job to pay for her students' books and field trips. She all but forgets about her husband, Scott (Patrick Dempsey), who does his floppy-haired brooding thing for a while before finally packing his bags. I'm not a huge fan of Swank's, but she really fades into this role; her smile, her failed attempts at urban slang, and even that strand of pearls are truly Erin's.

As with every based-on-a-true-story movie, though, it's tough to know what's real. Somehow, after Gies visits, the kids are all best friends, gang violence stops, and one student decides to testify against a fellow gang member at a trial. If that happened, it's a testament to Gruwell's teaching. If it didn't, it veers a little too close to standard Hollywood inspirational schlock.

Then again, maybe it doesn't matter. Freedom Writers is engaging, and even though you know where the movie is going when you walk into the theater, it's still moving when it gets there.

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