Miles on Movies

Freedom Writers

reviewed by R. Miles Mendenhall

Hillary Swank plays a young, tough but naïve teacher starting at an inner-city school in Long Beach. The year is 1994 and in the aftermath of the L.A. riots her low-end English students are disaffected and hostile. Gangs, violence, ethnic conflict and the war in the streets give them their focus, not improving their English grammar. She struggles, and eventually finds a way to engage them through their journal writing. And she pays a large personal cost.

I avoided seeing this film until now, it’s been out for several weeks, for two reasons. I’m an unemployed Secondary Social Science and English teacher and I didn’t think I could handle being reminded that I was unable to find a position this year. It would be too frustrating. (And it is!) Secondly the professional critics only gave it moderate approval, calling it formulaic and derivative.

I’m a sucker for romantic stories of dedicated teachers struggling to get through to difficult students, or who face other adversity. They then prevail because of their bureaucracy defying maverick ways. I’ve seen them all: “Black Board Jungle”, “Up The Down Staircase”,  “Goodbye Mr. Chips”, “Dead Poets Society.” They aren’t the reason I went into teaching, I’m not that naïve, but I am inspired and touched by these stories.

This is a fine film. It is a little simplistic and implausible at a few not too important moments. It only follows one of her classes. Teachers have to juggle a full load of five classes. There is a scene in a courtroom where the testimony of a student is a little too succinct.

Because it gives us some insight into the lives of poor, urban youth and the daily war for survival and place forced upon them, it does something noble and profound. It empathizes with the forgotten and discarded. I won’t knock that, ever. And yes, I wept, just a little. And they were happy tears. Best of all, it’s based on a true story.

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