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Theres no denying that the hallmarks of the Freedom Writers have been used before. One of those hallmarks in particular plays a strong, if not systematically elongated role throughout its proceedings. Its notably set in the Long Beach area of California, right smack in the middle of the states most caricaturised and economically dissimilar cities in Orange County and Compton. The timeframe becomes relevant as well when it transpires that it is set just 2 years since the hate resonating from the 1992 LA riots trickled down to the denizens of the county, and most saliently into the hearts and minds of its young.
In steps Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank) into a high school with her handful of lesson outlines, a plan to playfully introduce herself to her new students with a winning smile and her novel enthusiasm that is yet to be beaten down by the bitterness of the schools waning ideals. The students have not seen anyone like her in a long time. The wholesome quality she radiates takes a severe knock backwards when she realises that the students are not there to learn, or to respect any sort of authority figure especially when her very nature is the antithesis of all they know and understand. With a racially divided student population, the only things these students have in common are their uncertainty and despair.
And so the formula dictates the rest of the action, with Erin soldiering on through administrative obstacles (by way of a terrific Imelda Staunton) to earn the trust of her wary classroom, in the process changing their lives and inevitably hers as well. But what Freedom Writers does well during the familiar process of change and redemption is the remarkably deft handle it has on its characters and the keen sensitivity that it shows during its more evocative scenes. Based on the true-life story of Gruwell and her students, they published "The Freedom Writers Diary", a collection of the assignments they did to lend others insight into their lives. These assignments provide a framework for the narrative in the film, which thankfully understands its source well enough to have given the students stories a pulpit instead of revolving the vignettes around Gruwell. And true to form, Swanks presence does not take anything away from the key dramatic instances of these young actors.
Theres a starkness of ferocity shown in the film. It feeds on the aftermath of anguish not the explosions of rage, and this fuels the need for a change in the cycle of misery. The hard means of subsistence that the students face are narrated with passages from the book, their perspectives play the most crucial parts of what sets the film apart of its contemporaries. Despite the crutch of its basic formula, it feels refreshing and remains passionate till the end.
Theres a level of cynicism that operates beneath most films dealing with the hardships of urban youths. And although Freedom Writers begins by amplifying this cynicism and apathy by those that could have made a difference, its unabashed hopefulness takes over in the end.