The “classroom” genre is loaded with clichés. Dangerous Minds, Dead Poets Society, and even some sports films like Coach Carter load up on predictability. Freedom Writers succumbs to many of the same problems despite its true story. However, it’s an engaging, involving film that pulls itself up through character and emotion.
Hilary Swank is on the top of her game, even when starring in embarrassing duds like The Reaping. Here, she fits right into her role as Erin Gruwell. Tossed into a classroom of poverty-stricken, gang affiliated students, it becomes her life goal to embrace the kids and understand their plight. Yes, it’s a generic story, and it may seem as if it’s a slapped together script, crafted from other scripts with the same “troubled teen” angle.
That is technically true. You can assume from the beginning how this story will play out, and you’d be correct. What Freedom Writers does incredibly well is build up the emotional factor. Watching the kids talk to actual holocaust survivors, even going to the lengths to raise money to hear one speak is truly remarkable. It doesn’t matter at that point how the kids are portrayed or if they feel like they’re from another movie. What matters is that they still trigger an effective emotional response.
More impressive are the performances by a young cast of unknowns. Not a single kid in the group fails to deliver an effective performance. April Hernandez takes on an especially difficult role and handles it incredibly well, becoming a witness to murder involving her own family.
While part of the true story, Gruwell’s husband is simply irritating. Patrick Dempsey takes on the role with little screen time, and it’s hard to even see why he makes the choice he does. It’s an underdeveloped character, and even as the plot makes him a critical piece to the story, it feels unfinished. Of course, everyone is against Gruwell and her methods, despite them obviously working for the students. Her husband feels like another unneeded bump in that road.
While Freedom Writers is at times sloppy and predictable, it draws the audience in with its effective dialogue and gripping drama. In fact, it’s arguably one of the best of this small genre of troubled teens being turned around by someone looking to make a difference. It’s an important story told in an effective manner that should win an audience over.
The disc showcases a stand out video presentation from Paramount. Colors are beautifully rendered, and the transfer is crystal clear. There isn’t a hint of noise or compression artifacting to be had. In fact, the encode runs over 40 MBPS multiple times. Black levels are rich and deep. Contrast can occasionally run hot which does hinder fine detail, but these brief moments are overshadowed by the rest of the film which is simply loaded with pin-point precision detail.
Also surprising is the audio. Despite Blu-ray ending on the short end with a standard Dolby Digital mix (the HD DVD has a Dolby Digital-Plus encode), there are a number of impressive moments. The schoolyard fills with ambient dialogue and the hallways continue that trend. School bells ring in multiple channels, dialogue is clean, and the soundtrack delivers on the low end (if slightly lacking). For a non-action film, this is a strong, convincing audio track.
The disc finally falls flat when it comes to the extras. A commentary from director Richard LaGravenese and Hilary Swank delves into their inspirations and the usual details about the shoot itself. Four deleted scenes run around 11 minutes.
Making a Dream is a brief featurette about the film’s theme song, just breaking the five-minute mark. Freedom Writer’s Family is a terribly generic making of piece that runs close to 20 minutes. The only positive is the inclusion of the real Erin Gruwell, who comes back for the mistitled Story behind the Story. This is loaded with nothing but clips from the film, and actor interviews. It repeats the story of the movie without ever getting personal about the real people during its 10 minute run time.