Freedom Writers (2006)

Mitchell, 16. January 2007, 1:12

Freedom Writers
(Hillary Swank)

The first film in this post is a typical sports movie; the second a typical rags-to-riches story. This one is a slightly atypical amazing-teacher story, but I think most people will find it not very different from films like Stand and Deliver and Mr. Holland’s Opus.

Swank plays Erin Gruwell, a real-life teacher about whom I’ve read a few times in some of my teaching texts, and she turns what is otherwise a formulaic (though true-to-life, apparently) story into something believable. However, I have to say that I’m saying this because I’m a teacher. There are things Swank does here that convinced me and the two teachers I saw this with that she really understood what teachers go through. In this respect, I have to say that the film is slightly better than typical, because it is the first film I’ve seen where I thought the actor really knew what teachers are like.

The film shows, too, what happens to Gruwell’s personal life as a result of her dedication to her classroom. I saw the movie with two other late-thirties teachers who are also single, and I think this aspect of the story rang true with each of us.

I admit I bought it. Give it a 7/10 with the caveat that the thing I most liked about it is something most people couldn’t relate to.

1 Response to “Freedom Writers (2006)”

  1. Reid


    I agree with Mitchell that most people will find this film similar to Stand and Deliver, Lean On Me, Dangerous Minds, etc.–I certainly think the film is very similar to those films and I’m curious to hear what made the film atypical for Mitchell. If you like those films and don’t tire of the same formula, then you would probably enjoy this film. I don’t mind formulaic films–in this case a teacher that connects with disadvantaged youth and turns their lives around. But I’ll go into why I think the formula wasn’t executed very well and why this particular formula is starting to annoy me.

    Mitchell found the film believable because of the depiction of teaching, but I found the film unbelievable because of the depiction of the students–and the relationships with the teacher as well as with each other. First, the students don’t really speak, dress and act like fourteen year olds from a low-income, troubled background–at least the teenagers of a similar background that I’ve worked with. The students looked and behaved more maturely than many fourteen year olds I know. They were also better dressed and better groomed. That’s not to say that some lower income students aren’t well-groomed or well-dressed, but many aren’t. The students in the film also are more articulate and have a higher reading ability than students than I would expect. When we hear the voiceovers of their journal entries or passages of The Diary of Anne Frank, the reading level is fairly high and the reading itself is pretty articulate. Again, there are students from this background that can read material like this, but there are many that can’t.

    Second, I thought the way students begin responding positively to the teacher wasn’t very realistic. In one crucial scene, the students open up and become quite vulnerable in front of each other and the film didn’t make these actions believable. It takes a lot for this to occur. The teacher has to be really likable, trustworthy and have a good ability to develop a rapport with the students for this to happen. Swank’s performance didn’t convince me that she had this gift. Also, this kind of opening up also takes a lot time–time needed to establish trust and a significant comfort level. U sually mistakes and failures made by the teacher, especially a first year teacher, are part of getting to this point. Yes, the film shows that Gruwell is not entirely successful initially, but really the rough spots of her teaching seemed glossed over. By the way, when I watch films like this, I really pay attention to the moment when the students begin responding positively to the teacher because these moments determine the believability of the relationship afterward. Everything rides on this moment (similar to the way a romantic movie often depends on the believability of the way the couple fall in love). Also, most of the scenes in these moments are not realistic and believable, imo.

    To make this moment more believable, the movie could have shown more of the mistakes made by the teacher and the struggle she had with them. There’s a lot of stress for first time teachers and even more so with teaching students with this kind of background. Showing some of the students dropping out or not responding positively to the teacher would have also help make the scene believable. I’d be skeptical if all the students responded positively to her teaching. You would really have to be a super charismatic and brilliant teacher to get them all. Certainly, Swank’s performance didn’t convince me that she was that type of teacher. Another approach could have been showing a slow progression of the relationship developing over time. The film does have several scenes building up to the moment when the students begin opening up, but the filmmakers didn’t use these to establish the believability when the moment occurs.

    Besides the realism of the students and their relationship with the teacher, I’m a little more annoyed at films like this because they glamorize teaching with lower-income students, glossing over the real difficulties and complexities of the situation. This film was no different. There’s a lot of frustration, stress and failure that takes place. An adult can reach these kids, but it takes a lot of time and energy and the efforts aren’t always successful. I don’t think the film captures this aspect very well at all. One of my friends, who works with teenagers and has a wife who is a high school teacher, expressed annoyance at the fact that Gruwell only taught for a short time and left (five years). I can understand his point. The film praises Gruwell, but she didn’t stick it out for the long run. Perhaps, her style is not sustainable. But then perhaps our enthusiasm for this story should be more reserved.

    I also didn’t care for the way film turns the head of the English Department into a villain. Some of the points she makes–like reluctance to give out textbooks–are a legitimate concern. Also, I also thought there was legitimacy to the complaint about Gruwell staying with the students beyond the Sophomore year. Tenure may not be a great principle for determining what grade level you get to teach or if you can loop with students, but if that’s the principle applied to all teachers than making exceptions would not be fair and protests from other teachers would be justified. If she gets to stay with her students, why shouldn’t other teachers be able to? But the film invalidates these points by making the teacher (and honors teacher) into villains. There are a lot of complex issues with educating children from this background and the film doesn’t do them justice. Btw, the French film The Class have more realistic portrayals of students from this type of background. Also, for fresh treatment of the “teacher-as-savior” genre see Half-Nelson starring Ryan Gosling.

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