Here is the formula for movies about idealistic young teachers who go into bad neighborhoods:
1. Idealistic teacher goes into bad neighborhood and is aghast at poor conditions and cynicism of the school administration.
2. Students treat teacher with contempt because he/she cannot possibly understand them.
3. Dedicated teacher demonstrates through persistence and unprecedented willingness to be honest that he/she deserves their respect.
4. Students begin to get interested in learning. But there are some setbacks, often involving a student’s home situation. The teacher’s personal life can also interfere.
5. There is often a montage and/or some kind of dancing sequence.
And this one clomps along, hitting all those notes, with double-Oscar winner Hillary Swank as Erin Gruwell, doing her best in a world that just doesn’t see how much these kids have to offer. Dr. McDreamy Patrick Dempsey plays her initially supportive husband, Scott Glenn her concerned father, and Imelda Staunton the harried principal. The students are played by an assortment of actors who all look closer to 30 than to high school age.
There are indeed some inspiring moments, as Gruwell has the students read Anne Frank’s diary. They learn that they are not the only ones in the world to be surrounded by random violence and tragic loss and begin to discover the healing power of telling their own stories. There is one great scene as Miep Gies (Pat Carroll in the film’s best performance), the woman who hid the Frank family, comes to the classroom to tell them that they are the real heroes. But too much of it fails to have the vivid detail necessary to bring it to life. Swank, who also produced, makes Gruwell too saintly and the students too generic for us to feel any real connection.
Parents should know that this film deals with students who are surrounded by and sometimes involved in gangs. There are references to violence and murders and some moderately graphic situations. Characters use some strong language, including racial epithets. There are references to drugs and sex. Characters drink. The movie’s strengths include its positive portrayal of racial tolerance, the importance of integrity and education, and the dedication and sacrifice of an idealistic teacher.
Families who see this movie should read the book Gruwell and her students wrote. They should also read about Miep Gies and Anne Frank. Every teenager should read her diary. They might like to try keeping a diary themselves.
Families who enjoy this film will also enjoy To Sir With Love, Up the Down Staircase, and Dangerous Minds. They will also enjoy the outstanding documentary OT: Our Town, about a Compton class that puts on a production of Thornton Wilder’s play “Our Town.”