With her Marge Simpson pearls, toothy grin, and unshakable belief in the essential decency of human nature, Hilary Swank cuts a decidedly anachronistic figure in Freedom Writers, Richard LaGravenese's fact-based inspirational-teacher drama. Set in the mid-'90s, the film takes place in the sort of crime-ravaged Southern California war zones immortalized in NWA's music and movies like Menace II Society. But Swank animates her dogged positivity with an old-school combination of indefatigable '50s optimism and '60s civil-rights activism.
Playing yet another iron-willed true believer, Swank stars as an idealist who takes a job at a tough inner-city school where apathy and cynicism reign, and withering contempt for humanity is a widespread occupational hazard. Swank's Pollyanna pluck initially just earns her insolent glares from burnt-out teachers and students alike, but her persistence eventually wins her the loyalty and affection of shell-shocked pupils unaccustomed to teachers driven by an almost messianic sense of purpose. Swank ignites her pupils' imagination by getting them to write about their lives in cathartic personal journals, and by drawing parallels between their dangerous adolescences and the harrowing travails of Anne Frank. Patrick Dempsey co-stars in the thankless role of Swank's long-suffering husband, who pops up at regular intervals to complain that Swank's job is swallowing her life and their marriage.
Like its do-gooder protagonist, Freedom Writers doesn't have a hip or knowing bone in its body. It's so doggedly square that even the faintest hint of irony or sarcasm would probably shatter it, especially once it dives headfirst into the heavy emotional terrain of the Holocaust. Yet thanks to LaGravenese's empathetic writing and direction, and Swank's titanic force of will, Freedom Writers' unabashed earnestness proves unexpectedly powerful: Its heart-on-its-sleeve humanism batters down viewers' defenses just as diligently as Swank wears down her students'. Though the film seldom strays from formula, there's something strangely moving about Swank's conviction that, in spite of everything, people are really good at heart.