If you're wondering if Hilary Swank can do anything wrong as an actress, the answer is yes. After all, she did do "The Black Dahlia" last summer.
But in "Freedom Writers," the answer is no, she can't.
In this inspirational film based on the true story of Long Beach, Calif., teacher Erin Gruwell and her freshman English class of diverse and troubled inner-city kids, Swank not only used her power to get the film made (the story was bouncing around Hollywood for years), but she used her gifts as an actress to make this otherwise sappy story watchable.
And while the character is not as heavy as her Oscar-winning roles in "Boys Don't Cry" and "Million Dollar Baby," Swank brings the same look of determination and "Little Engine That Could" attitude that make you root for her in these types of roles.
Add "Dr. McDreamy" Patrick Dempsey of "Grey's Anatomy" as her sulking husband who nurses a glass of wine in practically every scene to demonstrate his unhappiness with Erin's sudden new life as "parent/teacher," and the always-consistent Scott Glenn as Swank's father, and you've got the elements of a good cast.
But the surprise in this film comes from strong performances by the young actors playing the students.
Grammy-nominee Mario is incredible as Andre, a big, lovable street kid who's coping with being thrown out of his home and his older brother's murder conviction.
April Lee Hernandez is equally compelling as Eva, a Latina girl who is faced with protecting a fellow Latino whom she witnessed killing someone, and putting an innocent black schoolmate in jail.
And while the stories these kids share are not unique to Long Beach and certainly aren't new to the moviegoing public, the way writer/director Richard La Gravenese tells them is different.
When Gruwell assigns her class to write their own stories in journals that she was forced to pay for with money she earns working two part-time jobs, the students find a voice, and in that voice they find self-respect.
And where once the class was divided by race, we see them come together and come to see Ms. G's class as the home they don't have.
One particular story read by a Mexican student on the first day of sophomore class had tears streaming down my face. It wasn't overly dramatic, but its simplicity in the way it was directed and performed makes it the most powerful moment in the film.
Keeping It Reel?
If you're thinking "Freedom Writers" is Michelle Pfeiffer redone in "Dangerous Minds," you're doing yourself a disservice.