Based upon a true story (which produced the short story book, "The Freedom Writers Diary"), "Freedom Writers" stars Hilary Swank as Erin Gruwell, a teacher who finds herself in the middle of a rough inner city Los Angeles high school in the 90's. Gruwell starts off her first day with an amusingly perky grin, only to have that smile turned upside when she finds it difficult to even begin to reach her students, who end the day with a fight outside of class.
Divided by racial lines, Gruwell eventually calms the fighting, bringing the kids together by teaching them about tolerance and history like the Holocaust, which none of the students are aware of. She also gives the students journals and has them write about the stories of their lives (which resulted in the book.)
Meanwhile, Erin must face resistance from both school administrators (Imelda Staunton plays the "villain") - who have long given up - and her family, including her father (Scott Glenn) and husband (Patrick Dempsey of "Grey's Anatomy" fame.) This aspect of the story is never particularly interesting, as it's largely more of the same manufactured conflict that we've seen in similar "teacher" stories. The Dempsey character is so underdeveloped (it almost seems as if Dempsey was cast for his recent popularity, as he really isn't called upon to do very much) that his departure doesn't have much impact.
In a lot of ways, "Freedom Writers" is more of the same, but it's the fine performances that do lift it up beyond some similar fare like "Dangerous Minds". Swank offers a strong portrayal of the idealistic Gruwell, although the character's goofy humor (the film's few comedic moments involving Swank brought to mind more "High School High" than "Dangerous Minds") is a bit much at times, as is her ability be almost oddly cheerful the majority of the time (although Swank's tone on the commentary makes one think that that's just what she's like.)
The performances as a whole here really are rather good (although Dempsey can't really be blamed, as the character's so underdeveloped), but while the film is well-intentioned and a bit better than some of the recent efforts in the genre, it does still go over a good deal of familiar ground.
VIDEO: "Freedom Writers" is presented by Paramount in 1.85;1 anamorphic widescreen. Picture quality is just fine, with reasonably good sharpness and detail throughout the show. Minor artifacting is seen, but the majority of the film appeared clean and clear. Colors looked a tad flat, although this is likely the intended appearance.
SOUND: "Freedom Writers" is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. The film's soundtrack, which offers up a lot of rap songs from the time period, is presented with solid bass and nice reinforcement from the surrounds. While largely a more dialogue-driven drama, the rear speakers did offer some nice ambience during the exterior scenes. Audio quality was fine, with crisp dialogue and no distortion or other issues.
EXTRAS: Director Richard LaGravenese and actress Hilary Swank provide an audio commentary for the feature. Swank's chipper nature seen in some scenes of the film carries over to the commentary track, as she seems friendly and funny, and shares a good chemistry with the director. The two provide a good overview of the development of the project, working with the other actors and filming on location. There are some patches of silence here and a bit too much praise heaped on everyone, but not a bad track overall.
"Story Behind the Story" gives a brief overview of the real-life teacher and her students. It does use an awful lot of clips from the film, though. 11 minutes of deleted scenes offer some additional character development, but I guess these scenes were dropped to keep the running time tighter. "Freedom Writers Family" is the longest piece of the bunch at nearly 20 minutes and, despite still feeling rather "promotional", the piece provides the most detailed look "behind-the-scenes". It offers plenty of behind-the-scenes interviews and an overview of the development, casting and production. "Making A Dream" is a short featurette where music producers Will.i.am and Common discuss the film's soundtrack. Finally, we get a trailer for the film and photo gallery.
Final Thoughts: I'll say that I've long grown tired of the "inspirational teacher" genre, but while "Freedom Writers" doesn't do anything different, at least it does provide a handful of enjoyable performances to lift it above average. The DVD presentation offers fine audio/video quality and a very nice set of supplemental features. Rent it.
The Film B-