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It's familiar, but 'Freedom' still inspires

The cynical half of the movie reviewer's brain: Would you look at that? They've gone and remade "Dangerous Minds," that Michelle Pfeiffer inner-city-high-school movie from 1995. With all the cliches intact, no less.

The earnest half of the movie reviewer's brain: Oh, stop it. "Freedom Writers" isn't a retread.

Cynical half: Of course, it is -- there's nothing here that wasn't in "The Blackboard Jungle" and "To Sir with Love" and "Stand and Deliver" and "Finding Forrester."

Earnest half: How can it be a retread when it's based on a real teacher, Erin Gruwell of Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach, Calif., and her real students, and their real accomplishments?

Cynical half: Because Hollywood knows how to turn an inspirational story into boilerplate. The troubled, unreachable kids who come around in the last reel, the hidebound school bureaucracy, the doubts, the breakthroughs. The Top 40 soundtrack.

Earnest half: Feh. You forget that the young audience "Freedom Writers" is made for hasn't seen any of those other movies. More to the point, almost all films work from shopworn premises. It's the job of the cast and crew to pump them up with new life and meaning -- to make them matter all over again. And writer-director Richard LaGravenese and his actors do just that. The movie works.

Cynical half: All right, I'll agree the dialogue is unusually well-written, and that the young cast gets under the skin of their roles -- especially April Lee Hernandez, Mario, and Jason Finn as three worst-case gangbangers who pick up journals and start writing their way into the wider world.

Earnest half: Exactly. And the world they're starting from -- the post-Rodney King LA of the mid-'90s -- is believably depicted as a soul-killing war zone.

Cynical half: But what about Hilary Swank as Gruwell? She's just so . . . so . . .

Earnest half: White?

Cynical half: Yes.

Earnest half: And bouncy and idealistic and upper middle class and completely clueless about her students' lives. Refreshingly, "Freedom Writers" doesn't sugarcoat the teacher's own learning curve or its effect on her marriage to a handsome guy (Patrick Dempsey) who isn't as strong as she is. Gruwell's whiteness, her otherness, becomes irrelevant as soon as the students see she's not lying to them. They never quite let her off the hook, though, and in a weird, comical way that becomes a sign of respect. Swank starts as a Barbie doll and ends as a mother bear.

Cynical half: Imelda Staunton can't do much with her role: The mean old teacher who resists the rule-breaking newcomer.

Earnest half: She does seem like a vague version of Judi Dench in "Notes on a Scandal," doesn't she? All the adult roles are underwritten. It doesn't matter. "Freedom Writers" is about the abiding love affair between a gifted teacher and her students. Gruwell's job is to show how their struggles have precedent in other people's lives and in history. She gives them context and teaches them to express themselves within it.

Cynical half: Thus the Holocaust history lessons.

Earnest half: You've got it. Reading "The Diary of Anne Frank" and meeting death-camp survivors (who play themselves) gives the kids a perspective they've never had and an impetus to do something with it. Although I agree it's a little odd seeing Pat Carroll cast as Frank's protectress , Miep Gies, who did visit the school at the students' invitation.

Cynical half: And I agree the kids' individual triumphs seem satisfyingly hard-won. That scene where the one boy who hasn't spoken all year finally reads his journal is a killer.

Earnest half: You were crying. I saw it.

Cynical half: Problem with my contact lens.

Earnest half: You wear glasses. Just tell people to go see the movie already.

Cynical half: Go see the movie already.

Both halves of Ty Burr's brain can be reached at For more on movies, go to

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