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(photo credit: Paramount Pictures)
At first blush, comparing the lives of youngsters in the black, Latino and Cambodian ghettoes of Southern California to the fates of Holocaust victims seems an almost indecent stretch, but it works surprisingly well in the new Paramount film Freedom Writers.
At the movie's opening, idealistic novice teacher Erin Gruwell (played by two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank) meets her freshman class from hell at a recently integrated high school in Long Beach, a port city south of Los Angeles.
The bloody race riots of the early 1990s have recently shaken the area, and all but one white student has abandoned the freshman class. Its 14- and 15-year-old gang members and hangers-on have segregated themselves into racial blocks, carrying guns to school, running riot in class and ignoring or taunting the na ve young white teacher.
Gruwell, a real teacher and writer whose experiences form the basis of the film, tries desperately to get through to her sullen charges, whose hopeless view of life is summed up by one black gang member, who tells her that "the only time you get respect is when you're shot dead."
A breakthrough moment comes unexpectedly when the teacher confiscates a drawing depicting one black student in a vicious caricature. In a moment of sudden inspiration, Gruwell, who is not Jewish, tells her students about anti-Semitic caricatures and asks if anyone has heard about the Holocaust.
None has, and Gruwell, taking a night job as a department store sales clerk to earn extra money, buys copies of The Diary of Anne Frank and asks her students to read the book.
The students can identify with the tribulations of another teenager and, in an emotional scene, a hard-bitten Latina girl tearfully confronts Gruwell, demanding to know why she wasn't warned that Anne would die.
As the kids get more involved in The Diary, Gruwell digs into her own pocket to pay for a trip to the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. There, each student is given a card with the photo and story of a youngster who perished in the Holocaust, and later has dinner with four survivors.
Next, the teacher asks the students to voluntarily keep a diary in which, perhaps for the first time, each can tell his or her personal story of broken homes, police brutality and friends lost to gang warfare in the ghettoes.
By now caught up in the project, the students raise money to bring Miep Gies, who helped hide the Frank family, from Amsterdam to speak to the class. The aged Dutch woman and the American ghetto kids bond immediately. When they hail her as a heroine, she responds immediately, "No, no, you are the heroes every day."
Eventually, Gruwell combines the diary entries of her students, now self-designated as "Freedom Writers," into a book which formed the basis for the movie.
A fair part of the action is taken up by Gruwell's bureaucratic battles with rule-bound superiors, and her gradual estrangement from her husband, who feels neglected by his wife's single-minded focus on her students.
Films about idealistic teachers who turn around a bunch of hopeless street kids are a Hollywood staple, but Freedom Writers, which opened in fourth place at the US box office over the weekend, stands out for two reasons.
One is the remarkable performance of Hilary Swank, who becomes transformed, while transforming her students, without false sentimentality or condescension.
Second, viewers have the real Gruwell's word that the story represents her experience truthfully. The film becomes even more compelling when one learns that practically all the students from her class, once slated to become drop-outs and end up with dead-end jobs, would later enroll in college.