"Freedom Writers" | Quickly and shallowly skimming the surface

Erin Gruwell, whose story is told in Richard LaGravenese's movie "Freedom Writers," is a quiet American hero. An idealistic young teacher at Wilson High School in Long Beach, Calif., she encountered on her first day a diverse roomful of sullen-faced, supposedly unteachable teens, many of whose lives were affected by gangs, drugs, crime and poverty. Determined to find a way to connect with them, she encouraged the students to write in journals (which she provided, financing extra supplies through weekend jobs), to talk about books and ideas, to find hope.

The result was a published book of the students' writings, "The Freedom Writers Diary," and many academic success stories. Gruwell now runs a charitable organization, The Erin Gruwell Education Project, that awards scholarships and works to bring her methods to classrooms nationwide.

It's a truly inspiring story; pity the movie doesn't live up to it. Gruwell's progress surely happened gradually, over a period of months and years; in order to shrink it down to two-hour movie length, LaGravenese seems to have removed most nuance. Gruwell, earnestly played by Hilary Swank, is a shining-eyed saint; the other teachers are nasty sorts who seemingly hate kids. "You don't even like them!" Erin accuses a fellow teacher. The colleague eyes her suspiciously and replies, "What does that have to do with teaching?"

At home, Erin must cope with a none-too-supportive husband (Patrick Dempsey, lit beautifully) who complains a lot about how she never has time for him, and about how their bathroom has only one sink. It is, I suppose, an achievement to make an audience dread the sight of Dr. McDreamy himself, but he's a grim, one-note character of whom we quickly get enough.

And the kids, many of whom are played by actors visibly past their teens (they're supposed to be high-school freshmen and sophomores, but many look like they're past graduate school), transform almost overnight from surly troublemakers to eager learners. In making the process seem so simple, the film belittles Gruwell's great achievement: She made her students feel that they and their writing mattered, and thus transformed their lives.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Movie review 2 stars

Showtimes and trailer

"Freedom Writers," with Hilary Swank, Patrick Dempsey, April Lee Hernandez, Scott Glenn, Mario, Jason Finn, Hunter Parrish, Imelda Staunton. Written and directed by Richard LaGravenese, based on the book "The Freedom Writers Diary" by the Freedom Writers with Erin Gruwell. 123 minutes. Rated PG-13 for violent content, some thematic material and language. Several theaters.