Freedom Writers (2007)

In 2007, the United States bond market crashed, triggering the Great Recession the following year. And yet the culture of the time was intensely optimistic, at least in the United States. Partly crazed by an avalanche of Presidential and Congressional scandals, the race to replace George W. Bush, now the most and least popular President in U.S. history, was dominated by a dynamic young African American who might have just had a shot at winning. In the entertainment industry, the vast expansion of cable, and subsequent attempts at catching it up by network television, created an outpouring of creativity that finally brought television to a level of respect previously reserved for film, and did so just in time for a strike by screenwriters to earn popular support, and a brief mainstream vogue for amateur content on YouTube.

The film world, though less subject to attention, was going through a similar spasm of enthusiasm. Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman died– on the same day, no less. Sidney Lumet and Mike Nichols directed their last films. John Carney, Ben Affleck, and Nacho Vigalondo directed their first.

It was an amazingly imaginative year for the film world. Technology had made it easier for people to make movies who otherwise might not have been able. The massive shift in audience tastes in the wake of the 9/11 attacks six years earlier still shaped what kinds of movies studios were willing– and unwilling– to make, but enough time had passed that filmmakers, audiences, and critics alike could have unselfconscious fun.

At the time, many critics believed 2007 to be the greatest year in the history of film. Today, many if not more still believe that. I am one of them, not least because I’ve seen more movies released in 2007 than any one of those critics ever could have seen at the time– studio blockbusters and festival indies, old-fashioned drama and low-budget horror, from every genre and at least seventeen countries– and have come away feeling extraordinarily lucky that I was able to live through that time. Though I wish I’d gone to theaters more.

Sure, there were terrible movies, and we’ll get to those soon enough, but entertainment is not a zero-sum game. While tastes may be subjective, a careful look will find more craft, excitement, and passion by volume than one could probably ever get from the likes of 1939 or 1968. More great films will be forgotten from 2007– and some sadly already have been– than most years are lucky enough to produce. Rest assured, at 136 feature films, this will be the most extensive retrospective I ever write. And I’ve decided to start in the very first weekend of the year with Freedom Writers.

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Freedom Writers
Dir. Richard LaGravenese
Premiered January 5, 2007

January is typically peak season for abortive Oscar Bait; the kinds of movies with the pedigree and trademarks of an award winner, but which the studio or distributor has decided isn’t worth it. Is that the case with Freedom Writers?

Well, yes. Inspirational teacher movies had been a joke since “you’re the man now, dog.” School of Rock had been out four years by this time; Hamlet 2 was only a year away. It would have taken a serious re-invention and update to make the genre relevant, and Freedom Writers is anything but. Set in 1990s gangland Long Beach, Hilary Swank plays a rookie teacher who tries to make a difference (say it with me) but struggles to reach these kids until she hits on something new: give them journals to write about their own experiences.

This is actually a good innovation; I haven’t seen that many teacher movies, but I’ve seen enough to know that the main character usually tries to get in good with the kids to relate to the pop culture of the time in a way that comes off as condescending and instantly dates the film. Instead of bending over backwards like that, she realizes that the kids need to be heard.  I actually really like that. And for that alone, it’s watchable.

Unfortunately, the film struggles to make a coherent plot around it. Freedom Writers is based on a true story, and you can tell where the truth ends and the bad screenwriting begins. The movie’s full of ancillary characters whose attitudes change just to buttress Swank’s arc. Imelda Staunton plays a prissy, bigoted villain that exists mainly to turn up her nose and say something along the lines of “this is most unorthodox!” The protagonist’s father (Scott Glenn) and husband (Patrick Dempsey) are all over the place too, despite barely being in the movie. And it’s really not necessary. Furthermore, there’s no humor in the film. It’s not soul-crushingly dour, but it comes of as rote and uninspired.

Additional Notes
I haven’t seen Finding Forrester since it was first released on DVD, but I’ve actually heard good things about it, YTMND nonwithstanding. I think Gus Van Sant’s mainstream work is often unfairly maligned (though he still couldn’t save Even Cowgirls Get the Blues).
As we all know, this wouldn’t be the only time in 2007 Imelda Staunton playing a prissy, bigoted villain. But we’ll come back to that later.
Concerning inspirational teacher movies, the only one I really liked is Stand and Deliver. Edward James Olmos gives a great performance as the hardass/smartass Jaime Escalante, and it really does have a sense of humor. Plus, it’s about a math teacher rather than an English teacher, which is refreshing. Full disclosure: Both Escalante and Olmos went to the same college as me.

How Did It Do?
Freedom Writers barely broke even when factoring in marketing, earning $43.1 million against a $21 million budget. The film earned a 69% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes, while even many positive reviews noted that this particular genre/archetype had become completely played out.

Next Time: Stomp the Yard

 

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