Naive white teacher Erin (Hilary Swank) tries to reach a group of delinquent, at-risk minority students in an early '90s, post-Rodney King L.A. high school. How? By convincing them to write in a diary everyday to show them that they have a voice.
Big question: Can writer-director Richard LaGravenese ("Living Out Loud") make this true story spring from the page without ramming it down our throats?
Skip it: The young actors don't hint at any hidden potential early on, so the characters just start out as obnoxious and unsympathetic. And, despite adolescent group-think, it's tough to buy the manner in which everyone converts to Erin's plan at once. While it's inspiring to see lessons learned and racial strife overcome, the film doesn't really explore the relationship between an underprivileged background, education and the call of the streets.
Catch it: If you're as informed as Erin about rap and pronounce Tupac, "Two-pack." He's a rapper, Erin, not a bundle of paper towels.
Bottom line: The movie finds its voice towards the middle and, like the troubled kids, has the potential to succeed with a little work. But time is wasted on Erin's problems with her husband (Patrick Dempsey) and the movie should focus more on the students, not the teacher. As such, the teenage experience remains a mystery and the movie can't avoid coming off mostly as the story of a white educator cleaning things up in a bad neighborhood.
Bonus: Don't know anything about culture clashes? Eva (April Lee Hernandez) will catch you up in the most simplistic way imaginable: "We killed each other over race, pride and respect." Care to elaborate?
Matt Pais is the metromix movies producer.
Directed and written by Richard LaGravenese; based on the book "The Freedom Writers Diary" by the Freedom Writers with Erin Gruwell; photographed by Jim Denault; edited by David Moritz; production designed by Laurence Bennett; music by Mark Isham, will.i.am; produced by Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher. A Paramount Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 2:03. MPAA rating: PG-13 (For violent content, some thematic material and language).
Erin Gruwell - Hilary Swank
Scott Casey - Patrick Dempsey
Margaret Campbell - Imelda Staunton
Steve Gruwell - Scott Glenn
Eva - April Lee Hernandez
Andre - Mario