You've seen this movie before. It may have been called "The Blackboard Jungle" or "Up the Down Staircase," or perhaps "To Sir With Love," "Conrack," "Stand and Deliver" or "Dangerous Minds." You might have seen it as a TV show. Regardless, it's the one in which a teacher gains control over -- and then, respect and love from -- a classroom of at-risk rowdies, opening up a world of possibilities for their futures that neither they nor anyone else had imagined.
It's a pretty reliable movie for those of us who admire and are fascinated by excellent teachers, as well as moved by how enlightenment and caring can transform troubled teens.
Of course, not all versions of that movie are equal. "Stand and Deliver" set a standard that no "teach"-versus-toughies film has matched since, and this film doesn't change that. It still manages to be a touching and fairly winning addition to the genre, but, surprisingly, that's almost in spite of, rather than because of, two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank in the lead role.
Just as it was hard to buy Michelle Pfeiffer as an ex-Marine in "Dangerous Minds" despite previous earthy roles, so does it strain credibility to accept that a woman as skinny, preppie and gee-whiz idealistic as Swank is here could ever gain the upper hand in a classroom of unruly, racially divided kids from the toughest neighborhoods of Long Beach, Calif. -- "Million Dollar Baby" notwithstanding.
Of course, authority is an intangible thing that does not always depend on stature, and Swank is portraying real-life English teacher Erin Gruwell, whom photographs reveal to be physically similar to her. (No word on if her ex-husband resembles Patrick Dempsey, "Dr. McDreamy" from TV's "Grey's Anatomy," who acquits himself admirably here as the neglected-feeling spouse.) The film is based on a book, called "The Freedom Writers Diary," written by Gruwell and her students at Woodrow Wilson High School. If the film is accurate, Gruwell's authority came from her ability to listen to the teens -- deemed "unteachable" delinquents -- and think of creative ways to reach them.
One of these is exposure to the Holocaust, triggered by a cruel caricature of a black classmate passed around by the Latino kids. Gruwell, a novice teacher, arranges a trip to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles and dinner with concentration camp survivors (played by real ones) at the hotel where Gruwell works part time in order to pay for the supplies and outings that the odious department head (wonderful "Vera Drake" star Imelda Staunton) refuses to fund.
Their eyes opened to the horrors that hatred can create, the students gradually unite. Reading "The Diary of Anne Frank," they are so impressed by the heroism of Miep Gies, who helped hide Anne and her family from the Nazis, that they raise money to bring her to the school. It's terribly touching when a student declares her his first hero and requests the honor of escorting her into the classroom.
When Gruwell assigns her students to keep their own diaries, they realize that they, too, have stories to tell and heroism to practice in their lives. It's very moving to witness them doing both.
3 stars (Out of 4)
STARRING: Hilary Swank, Imelda Staunton, Patrick Dempsey, Scott Glenn, April L. Hernandez and Mario
DIRECTOR: Richard LaGravenese
RUNNING TIME: 120 minutes
RATING: PG-13 for scenes of violence, mature thematic material and language
THE LOWDOWN: The true story of a California teacher who unified and inspired her racially divided, disadvantaged students through journal writing and lessons on intolerance.