Hilary Swank adds heart to well-worn formula

2008-02-01 00:00

On Sunday I saw the movie The History Boys (Cinema Nouveau), which is based on a play by British writer Alan Bennett. It's about a small group of high-achieving schoolboys preparing for their Oxbridge entrance exams, and it's about the struggle between two teachers with differing pedagogical methods. Almost everyone in this movie is gay (this being a British school movie) and able to quote liberally from Auden and Wittgenstein.

And on Saturday I saw Freedom Writers, which is also about teachers and their clashing methods. But how these movies differ, perhaps mostly because one is British and the other American.

The main criticism of Freedom Writers has been that it is derivative, drawing on a long line of movies about teachers who save their troubled and at first recalcitrant students with innovative ideas and immense self sacrifice. So far so Dangerous Minds. This is a trite and obvious thing to say about this movie, but then, it seems a trite and obvious movie. And yet, it isn't. It has a good heart. And this heart is almost all Hilary Swank, as young teacher Erin Gruwell.

It is 1994, and South Central Los Angeles is simmering with racial tension. Erin begins her new job at a recently racially integrated school, where gang and race affiliations are inscrutable to the outsider and literally divide her classroom down the middle. At first the kids (well, they're supposed to be kids, but none of the actors look a day under 23) hate her. This isn't surprising. She's as chipper as a chipmunk, and tries to win their hearts by speaking gang lingo, dressed in polka dots and pearls.

But then she gives them all a journal as an assignment, they unexpectedly pour out their stories of poverty, abuse and violence, and their lives start to change.

Beneath the formula and the unrelenting tear jerking, there is a fresh take on a genre that is not perhaps as tired as one may have thought. The History Boys has the edge over Freedom Writers in that it doesn't strive for the moral, the intrinsic affliction of American film. But despite its intelligence, it didn't captivate like Swank's toothy smile.

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