Poor Hilary Swank. She’s had a terrible year, and it’s only April. The biblical dog The Reaping is currently hounding her like Cerebus, but her awful 2007 started with Freedom Writers, dumped into the postholiday, pre-Oscar black hole of January and landing on DVD this week. And actually, it’s a film that works best in a particular kind of black hole, that kind that sucks away all your knowledge of every other film you’ve ever seen. (If only such black holes existed — it would make enjoying so many movies so much easier.) If you’ve never been exposed to Stand and Deliver or Dangerous Minds or Mr. Holland’s Opus or Dead Poets Society or Lean on Me or Music of the Heart or Finding Forrester or Pay It Forward or Take the Lead, then have at it: you’ll probably love it. I’d rather watch Dead Poets Society again, but that’s just me.
The game Swank is Erin Gruwell, a Southern California newbie teacher who rocked the limited worlds of her inner-city gangbanger students by introducing them to the power of the written word. Word up! Book ’em! Or something. Gruwell is a real person and her kids, who’d been abandoned by The System, did actually triumph in real life, but movies like this only denigrate their achievement by making it look like a snap to overcome the wheels of oppression and ignorance. And they sugarcoat the reality that people like Gruwell are merely rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic — it’s wonderful, of course, that she saved a handful of kids, but what about the rest of them? The System still sucks, still needs a major overhaul or maybe to be trashed entirely and rebuilt from the ground up, but those hard realities can’t crush the fantasy of this flick, which actually gives what should be the voice of reason to the villain, a school administrator played by Imelda Staunton: she’s the meanie trying to keep Gruwell from helping the poor kids who only need someone to show them a little understanding.
If only things were that simple. Or, wait: In these movies, they are.
DVD extras include commentary with Swank and director Richard LaGravenese, deleted scenes, a making-of featurette, and more. [buy at Amazon]