Movies about life-changing, role-model teachers push a lot of buttons, especially if you’re an educator or you’ve been involved in school for any stretch of time. As a former teacher’s child, I usually can’t resist.
Unfortunately, they’re usually pushing the same buttons. The formulaic nature of the genre, from “Goodbye Mr. Chips” to “Dangerous Minds” to “Akeelah and the Bee,” seems impossible to escape.
Of the recent entries, only Ryan Fleck’s “Half Nelson” and Nicholas Hytner’s “The History Boys,” which both deal with a teacher who is as inspiring as he is self-destructive, manage to say something new. Richard Griffiths and Ryan Gosling’s performances as seriously compromised teachers set a standard for honesty that make it hard to return to the glossy sentimentality of previous films on the subject.
“Freedom Writers,” unfortunately, trots right back to the formula. Co-produced by its star, Hilary Swank, it’s obviously heartfelt and sincere in its attempts to demonstrate the power of one teacher committed to transforming the lives of her students. But the audience is always ahead of the filmmakers: often way ahead.
Unless you’re very young and you’ve never seen any of these movies, you’re most likely to find yourself predicting each obstacle and each triumph over it. Will the inspiring teacher’s innovative techniques meet with fierce disapproval by a conservative teacher? Will her willingness to engage the kids on their own level ultimately prove more successful than traditional discipline? And will the movie gloss over all difficulties?
Like “Stand and Deliver” and several other predecessors, “Freedom Writers” is based on a true story. Swank plays Erin Gruwell, who did turn things around for her distracted, seemingly unteachable high-school kids in the early 1990s. Her specialty, which was mocked by a more cynical, veteran teacher: getting these troubled inner-city kids to study the Holocaust and read “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
Gruwell even manages to persuade the Frank family’s one-time protector, Miep Gies (played by Pat Carroll), to travel to Long Beach to visit her students — most of them minorities and some of them involved in gang warfare. But what should have been a revelatory meeting of cultures, united by their awareness of prejudice, is somehow drained of its dramatic potential by writer-director Richard LaGravenese.
As Swank’s forceful performance makes clear, Gruwell’s success did come at a cost, partly because she was more committed to her kids than she was to her husband (Patrick Dempsey). But the husband is portrayed as unsupportive and selfish, and his exit is no loss. In the long run, the marriage doesn’t count as much as her substitute family.
“Half Nelson” and “The History Boys” are hardly alone in suggesting the dark side of teaching. Robert Mulligan’s “Up the Down Staircase” (1967), also based on a teacher’s memoir, did a superb job of dramatizing its heroine’s battles with bureaucracy and her own sense of futility. But it couldn’t compete at the box office with the formulaic “To Sir, With Love” which was released almost simultaneously. Will it always be this way?