It’s another January, which means another ‘inspirational’ drama about someone telling unruly students that getting an education in literature will get them out of their miserable lives. It’s so well trodden material, whether it be “To Sir with Love”, “Dead Poets Society”, “Dangerous Minds”, “Coach Carter”, and so on that it’s the few that actually make their teachers into fallible real people – like last year’s “Half Nelson” and “The History Boys” – that deserve notice.
“Freedom Writers” isn’t one of those genre breakers however. The MTV drama may take its page from real life stories but breaks much of it down into trite formula despite a solid cast capable of far better things. This is demonstrated in the way that whilst much of the in-classroom dramatics are entertaining and moving enough, the characters outside the cast are painted in blunt, one-dimensional tones.
That white-washing not only robs some great dramatic actors like Imelda Staunton and even McDreamy himself Patrick Dempsey of decent material to work with, but also damages much of the movie’s credibility and chance to actually stretch itself. Staunton’s faculty head is reduced to a screaming hysterical bitch capable only of malice and jealousy. Dempsey as the attention-starved husband and Scott Glenn as the disapproving dad are equally one-note, a shame considering both could’ve easily helped expand Swank’s character more.
Even Swank, despite an otherwise strong and very charming performance, is stuck with a character that is at first hopelessly naive (I’m as white as they come and even I know how to pronounce Tupac Shakur’s name correctly) and then later draped in idealism. Even with this rose-coloured view you can actually see the points where they cut out moments of arrogance or lack of consideration on Erin’s part – qualities that come stock standard with people so self-determined in their resolve.
All that being said ‘Freedom’ is probably going to be one of the better releases we’ll see in the next few months. It may be formula, but on that level it works well and will find a welcome audience. It’s upfront without being too harsh or in your face, and the various characters allow the whole thing to be grounded in humanity rather than beating one over the head with its message.
The strong work by the kids is mixed with solid, if somewhat uninspired direction by Richard LaGravenese who blends a standard street (albeit outdated) score, interesting cinematography by Jim Denault, and the aforementioend clunky script. Some moments, mostly in the classroom, strike the right chord – notably Erin’s epiphany about her student’s lives or Pat Carroll’s strong cameo as Anne Frank shelterer Miep Gies who gives a captivating account of her actions to the class.
Yet at over two hours there’s just not enough here. Odd moments and elements crop up throughout such as an odd fascination with a pearl necklace (no, not the dirty kind), somewhat cheap product placement (this review brought to you by Borders bookstore), and an ultimately drawn out and silly ending that feels anti-climactic after the highpoint of the Miep Gies scene.
Those who haven’t seen such material before will find themselves really adoring the film. Even for us jaded folks it’s a relatively easy film to watch thanks mostly to Swank and the kids, and a stronger film than most at this time of year. Still, make no mistake this is very much comfort food – easy going down but with little filling.