'Freedom Writers': A touch of class 

An emotional charge and a fresh ingredient enliven the formula in "Freedom Writers," the latest heroic-teacher drama to emerge from Hollywood’s uplift mill. Thanks to irresistible source material and some smart touches applied by writer-director Richard LaGravenese, something real and affecting happens amid the standard making-the-grade silliness.

Hilary Swank plays the real-life Erin Gruwell, a neophyte English teacher who arrives at a low-achieving Long Beach high school shortly after the Rodney King riots. Wearing pearls and exuding naivete, Erin determines to inspire her gang-enmeshed students, whom education authorities have financially and morally abandoned, to read great books and view the classroom as more than a holding pen.

Initially ineffectual, she reaches her ethnically divided pupils when, angered by a racist cartoon, she explodes with a Holocaust-themed lesson about intolerance. She further awakens the students by assigning them to read "The Diary of Anne Frank" and, in a brainstorm reflected in the film’s title, to keep their own journals. This project prompts the kids to realize that their stories matter and proves eye-opening for Erin as well.

More "Dangerous Minds" than "Born Into Brothels," the movie abounds with cliches. Erin is implausibly saintly. The supporting characters — Erin’s frustrated husband (Patrick Dempsey); a narrow-minded department head (Imelda Staunton) — are one-dimensional. Individual students have contrived little mini-dramas.

But more brightly, LaGravenese, a veteran screenwriter whose credits include the "Bridges of Madison County" adaptation and "Living Out Loud" (his directorial debut), is good at depicting predicament and scores enough such points to counterbalance the falseness.

Focusing seriously on the students — their view of their environs as a war zone; their distrust of anyone outside of the ethnic clusters into which they separate themselves — LaGravenese conveys veritable heat and tension in their interactions. When he shifts away from the hackneyed battles Erin wages with superiors and presents the potent minds of the "unteachables" in her classroom, the film becomes a moving look at the human potential that the system forsakes.

Swank, meanwhile, who has a way of seeming like a lightweight and then socking you, is effective as Erin, and, in underdeveloped roles, her young costars also impress. April Lee Hernandez, as a troubled Latina student, is particularly strong.

Upping the impact is LaGravenese’s inclusion of entries from the actual diaries the real-life Gruwell’s students wrote. Sad, poetic and stirring, they put the rest of the movie’s script to shame.

Freedom Writers ***

Starring Hilary Swank, Imelda Staunton, Patrick Dempsey, April Lee Hernandez

Written and directed by Richard LaGravenese

Rated PG-13

Running time 2 hours, 3 minutes

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Staff Report

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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