Directed by screenwriter Richard LaGravanese and based on the real-life experiences of fledgling California high-school teacher Erin Gruwell, this earnest drama says nothing that hasn't already been said by UP THE DOWN STAIRCASE (1967), TO SIR, WITH LOVE (1967), STAND AND DELIVER (1988), DANGEROUS MINDS (1995) and other films about teachers whose idealism and determination triumph over entrenched educational policy and the deep-rooted problems of disadvantaged students. But it's undeniably affecting, in large part because of Hilary Swank's gawky, intensely chipper performance as quintessential daddy's girl Gruwell, who chooses teaching over law because she believes education is the key to keeping ghetto kids out of jail, and who elects to work at troubled Woodrow Wilson High School out of admiration for her father's (Scott Glenn) involvement with the Civil Rights movement.
Gruwell is, needless to say, in for a rude shock: Her freshman English class is a rowdy scrum of racially polarized, emotionally scarred dropouts-in-training whose lack of interest in learning is exceeded by their contempt for her naive enthusiasm. And their scorn is matched by the faculty's disdain for them: When Gruwell tries to requisition books, department head Margaret Campbell (Imelda Staunton) assures her they're incapable of comprehending anything except dumbed-down condensations of the classics. When Gruwell seeks support from her peers, they counsel that her students will be gone in a couple of years anyway — lost to the streets, to jail, to welfare motherhood, to drugs — so there's no point in wasting resources. Gruwell's father fears for her safety, and her husband (Patrick Dempsey) resents competing for attention with teenagers like class clown Jamal (Deance Wyatt), wary Marcus (Jason Finn), quietly desperate Andre (Mario) and, especially, defiant Eva (April Lee Hernandez), who was born into gang life and upholds its tenets with stubborn ferocity.
Gruwell's discovery that most of the kids have never heard of the Holocaust forces her to come up with a radical new lesson plan: She takes on part-time work to pay for books — including The Diary of Anne Frank — and field trips. She devises exercises that reveal what her students have in common, introduces them to Holocaust survivors, encourages them to reclaim their own lives by keeping journals and arranges a visit from the physically frail but morally forceful Miep Gies (Pat Carroll), who had hidden the Frank family. And the teenagers respond. Formulaic though it is, the story hits the right emotional buttons and promises that hope and dogged work trump despair. Who wouldn't like to believe? — Maitland McDonagh leave a comment