Leave it to Hilary Swank. Even when her film's pace lags behind its cliches, she sparks this true story, about a California teacher who sparks her students, with the passion the subject demands. Erin Gruwell (Swank), wearing pearls, yet, seems helplessly ill-equipped on her first day at Wilson High School in Long Beach. The time is just after the Rodney King riots. Racial tension is high. But Erin, inexperienced and hopelessly naive, thinks she really can teach English to a class of blacks, whites, Latinos and Asians, most of whom are involved with gangs. The school authorities, repped by a ramrod Imelda Staunton, merely expect Erin to warehouse these alleged no-hopers, played with feeling by a cast of newcomers, who move their desks to segregate themselves into racial groups. Erin must learn their ghetto reality before she can reach them, which she does by assigning The Diary of Anne Frank and getting them to write letters to Miep Gies (Pat Carroll), the woman who helped the Frank family hide from the Nazis. Miep's visit to Erin's classroom is the film's emotional highlight. But Erin's most notable accomplishment was to persuade her students to write their own stories of persecution. These journals were published in 1999 as The Freedom Writers Diary, which writer-director Richard LaGravenese (Living Out Loud) used as his source material. Erin's dedication helped end her marriage — Patrick Dempsey, a.k.a. Grey's Anatomy's Dr. McDreamy, plays the whiny husband — but ted young lives on a whole new course. Corny? You bet. And worse when the plot veers into the glitz of a Dangerous Minds and the sappiness of a TV After School Special. But the movie, which Swank helped produce by using her clout as a two-time Oscar winner, gets to you.
From The Archives Issue 280: December 14, 1978