For an actress like Hilary Swank, having a movie open in January – the first weekend, no less – can’t be a good thing. With audiences focusing on expanding Oscar contenders from the previous year (“Munich” and “Brokeback Mountain” last year, “Children of Men” and Letters From Iwo Jima” this year), the first weekend of the new year is generally when the studios can dump their garbage new releases with the least attention. That’s probably why, in the past five years, the number of Academy Award winners to star in a film released in the first two weekends of January is exactly zero.

Angela Cesere
Too easy. (Courtesy of Paramount)

Considering this, “Freedom Writers” is a pleasant surprise. Based on a true story, the film stars Swank (“Million Dollar Baby”) as Erin Gruwell, a young teacher who begins work at an underperforming high school in Long Beach. Suffering the birth pains of court-mandated integration and the aftereffects of the L.A. riots of the early ’90s, Woodrow Wilson High School is a war zone. Gangs of several ethnic groups (whites, blacks, Latinos and Cambodians) wage war against each other, and the school is simply another arena for their hatred.

As Erin works to neutralize the student violence, her efforts are stonewalled by the school administrators – led by a poisonous Imelda Staunton (“Vera Drake”) – who believe it’s their job to teach only the gifted kids and simply baby-sit everyone else.

But like every assiduous ideologist before her, Erin only becomes more convinced of what has to be done as more and more people tell her to take the easy way out. Sacrificing her free time, marriage and potentially even her job, she puts a personal stake on resolving her students’ problems.

Like nearly every against-the-odds underdog story in recent years, “Freedom Writers” is platitude-heavy and dragged down by the need to resolve the massive problems it presents. Though the gang members in Erin’s class read “Anne Frank” and find that it’s “dope,” for example, we’re still left with the sense that not all will turn out well for the students.

Even with its gift-wrapped resolution, however, “Freedom Writers” doesn’t deny the harshness of real life, and that makes it somewhat unique. The film’s final saving grace is the mere fact that its storyline is a true one – the ceaseless efforts of one teacher actually did save these particular kids from lives of crime and poverty. Several even went on to college.

In attempting to maintain a sense of reality in a movie that should have a more conventional happy ending, “Freedom Writers” is easily darker than its genre’s counterparts. And that’s where Swank’s naively exuberant take on her role becomes important. She doesn’t fall into the trap of matching her portrayal to the grim mood of the film and appropriately serves as the counterforce to all the negativity that other characters bring to the table. Her acting is simple, perhaps not much different from her real-life personality, but it exacts the same prescience of human tendencies that made her best performances legendary.

After a season of film that disappointed greatly (see: “The Black Dahlia,” “The Good German,” among others), we have in “Freedom Writers” another film that defies expectation, though this time pleasantly so. This is but further proof that what studios think is the best, even at winning awards, is usually way off the mark. How fitting that a film about overcoming low expectations brings some quality to a time defined by cinematic garbage.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Freedom Writers
At Showcase and Quality 16

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