Due to the demands of the United States public education system, I was forced to watch this travesty of a movie and write this review, which I hope will be some sort of catharsis. Now, I know I don’t normally post my class projects, but I felt this needed to be uploaded in the full uncensored version, so the anger canflow much more freely and my style can be much clearer. So, let’s get this miserable ordeal over with. Freedom Writers was written and directed by Richard LaGravenese, who has… nothing of particular note on his résume, which is honestly a sign of things to come. It stars Hilary Swank, Patrick Dempsey, and a bunch of other actors. Before I get into this review, a quick disclaimer. This movie is based on a true story. I don’t care. Even if it is, it’s not a documentary, now is it? No, it’s a movie, a fictionalized account of events, and so I shall treat it as a story. Don’t like that? Then make a documentary. It doesn’t matter how realistic a production choice is, what matters is how it works in the movie as a whole. This is a movie, so I shall treat it as a movie. Got it? Good. Now, on to the movie itself. (Warning, I hated this movie, like, a lot, so I’m probably about to spit fire)
First off, as always, the most important element in any story, the characters. So… are they likable? No. Are they interesting? No. Are they distinctive enough to stand out in any way from the characters of various other movies in a similar style? No. And that’s just the class. The protagonist and pseudo-antagonists fare far far worse. The main character is astoundingly poorly written, and it’s infuriating after a while. Despite being based on a real person (which you’d think would give them more to work with), she still feels like a soulless archetype. It doesn’t help that Swank is very clearly phoning in her performance here to an insane degree. Now granted, this isn’t a very good role to bring your A-game to, but she doesn’t even remotely try. Dempsey and his character fare even worse, with a completely bland performance and a terrible character. The worst scene in this vomit stain of a movie is when he wants a divorce, because they unironically use the line “But I can’t be your wife” when she’s happier with her job than he is with his. It’s funny because it’s sexist! Now remember that an adult human being was paid to write that line, paid possibly thousands of dollars, and feel free to join me in smashing your head against the wall. While Dempsey’s character is easily the worst, the antagonist-teacher, reminiscent of Professor Umbridge from the Harry Potter movies, is still a strong second. If she wasn’t so cartoonishly presented, her arguments about stuff like precedent, seniority, etc would actually have a lot of viewers swayed to her side. A part of me thinks that’s why she’s such a caricature, because they don’t want you doing that. Audience manipulation, or just utter incompetence? I leave that for you to decide. The only other character with any focus lasting more than 90 seconds is one class member named Eva, who honestly has little to nothing compelling about her and just gets annoying quickly. Everyone else is remarkably flat, having pretty much just one trait, tops, and almost no focus (if any at all). I really can’t think of anything else to really say about them, so we must move on.
Now for the story. The story is as generic as you can possibly imagine, despite being based on true events, which I strongly suspect is a result of the awful writing, which fails to present events in any way other than what we’ve gotten in every other movie in the genre. So, Swank’s character (who for the purpose of comedy, I shall refer to as Mouthpiece from here on) moves into a school district full of delinquent kids (of various ethnicities). Aside from the crude behavior of class members, she also has to deal with a comically racist and patronizing administrator (whom I shall refer to as Strawman for the rest of this ordeal), as well as the bizarre mannerisms of her seemingly emasculated husband (who I shall refer to Trash Can Fire, because that’s what his character is). Note, no disrespect to the actual people these characters are based on, I’m sure they’re all lovely individuals, it’s just that they’re portrayed with no depth or real complexity, which poorly represent the actual people they characterize. The class is full of kids who fancy themselves gangsters, and speak in remarkably obnoxious fashion. Quick tangent here. I don’t care if this manner of speaking is “realistic”, you’re making a movie, so you should always go with what would make it more tolerable for the viewer, rather than “realism”. To that end, overuse of slang is always annoying, and writers need to stop putting it in their scripts so often because they have absolutely no idea how to write it. To be clear, it would still be annoying if they did know how to write it properly, but seeing how they don’t, because screenwriters generally aren’t the sorts of people who’ve ever used slang in the last 30 years, it becomes infuriating to listen to. Even if it’s a period piece, slang is the quickest form of language to become dated, even faster than pop culture references, so using it in your script will really make the overall product drag, because it’s not tight or radical enough to hold up in modern day. Was that use of slang words annoying to read? Good, that’s the point. So anyway, when Mouthpiece first enters the class, it’s just a bunch of obnoxious, poorly characterized kids who argue with each other in obnoxious ways. Then there’s one class member named Eva (whom I shall refer to as “Wannabe”, because if this movie is going to act so dated, then I don’t see why I can’t make references to 90s stuff like the fucking Spice Girls), who screams at Mouthpiece for not understanding the “gangsta” struggles (ok, I’ll stop the slang), but she’s the only one who isn’t treated as just part of a collective mass. So what traits does she have? Well, her backstory is that her father was arrested on what she believes to be a false charge, even though he’s a high profile gang member, which would honestly make arrests for any reason at least somewhat justified. You know, the law nailed Al Capone for tax evasion, but whatever, moving on. Her actual opinion on being in a gang seems wildly inconsistent, sometimes describing it as horrible and sometimes as the most important thing. Now, a competent writer would reconcile these conflicting opinions to show the contrast between them as indicative of her wavering loyalty to the gang as a whole, or how she tries to justify the awful things she’s seen but ultimately can’t because her conscience is too strong, but I think we’ve established that this movie doesn’t have one, so that doesn’t happen. Instead her characterization feels inconsistent throughout the film, until the script kinda forgets about her after her subplot concludes. As for everyone else, either they just get one character trait, or possibly none at all, as almost the entire class is just treated as a monolith. A lot of early named characters fall into this trap, notably Jamal (I think that’s his name, he doesn’t appear much after his introduction), because the script seems to forget about them and just never touches on them again. Now, a competent writer would be very careful to balance the named characters in terms of screen time and development, ensuring that characters important enough to have focus are given enough development to have a semblance of personality and humanity. But again, this movie doesn’t have one, so the script just forgets about most of the named characters, and any appearance they make after this happens, they aren’t given any dialogue to separate them from the entire rest of the class, so the entire class seems monolithic. This is an appallingly bad decision, because drama like this is a character driven genre, more so than almost any other, which means that flat characterization results in a wholly uninteresting final result. The only characters who are really given personality traits, flat archetypes though they may be, are Mouthpiece, Strawman, Trash Can Fire, and Wannabe, hence why I refer to them with stupid nicknames (well, that, and I can’t actually remember their names). So anyway, her subplot is focused on having seen a member of her gang murder a store owner, while someone else is framed for the deed, so she needs to decide whether to tell the truth or not. You know, “snitches get stitches”, etc. That subplot sounds like it could be interesting, right? She’s torn between loyalty to the gang and her own conscience, could make for compelling drama. NOPE! Instead, it’s barely focused on for most of the movie, it “climaxes” in this horribly shot courtroom scene (more on this later) and is, you guessed it, never mentioned again. So, ignoring that colossal waste of time, the main plot involves Mouthpiece trying to convert the class from delinquents to semi respectable students, while Strawman is constantly the most annoyingly condescending person imaginable, and Trash Can Fire is just inconsistent and bizarre all around. His one and only consistent character trait appears to be a sense of consistent emasculation because he dropped out of college, and it gets annoying incredibly fast. Every time this guy is in a scene, I just want to scream. So things progress this way for a while, Mouthpiece reforms the class, Strawman condescends to her and says it’s an impossible task, and Trash Can Fire acts really passive-aggressive. The idea of comparing gang violence to the Holocaust is… an interesting idea, potentially captivating if done right, but highly offensive if done wrong (especially for someone of my background). So, which one is this? If you guessed “interesting”, you’re wrong. If you guessed “offensive”, you’re also wrong. If you guessed “neither, because the movie does nothing with the comparison other than use it as an excuse to include Holocaust descriptions/lessons, without really connecting it to the actual situation, so it just comes off as jarring and lazy”, then you’re right. You know, if they handled it any worse, I would indeed be offended by it (touchy subject for me), but honestly, other than the fact that they do nothing with it and just include it in order to shoehorn a bunch of Holocaust related stuff into the movie, which indeed does bother me, because invoking the Holocaust is a very serious affair, and I believe it shouldn’t be done lightly, ultimately this movie doesn’t do anything offensive with that approach. Anyway, things go along like that for a while, until for some reason Trash Can Fire decides he hasn’t had enough screen time, so we enter the worst fucking scene of the movie. He, in his infuriating passive-aggressive way, gets a divorce, because she’s too active with her own interests, and he can’t stop angsting about it, and despite constantly angsting about having dropped out of college, as well as working what we’re told is a pretty good job, he decides that without that weird sense of superiority he apparently felt and then lost when she actually became devoted to her job (thanks, traditional gender roles), he would prefer to be alone. And again, I must repeat, he unironically uses the line “but I can’t be your wife” as his justification. It’s funny ‘cause it’s sexist! Oh, LaGravenese, you’re the next John Hughes, everyone in the country will laugh at your genius comedy! In the bottom of my heart, I sincerely hope this isn’t actually quoting the real guy that Trash Can Fire is based on, because if it was, in reality, unironically stated by an adult human being, in similar context to how it was written here, I will stick my head in a toilet and hopefully drown there. You know, as horrendous as this scene is, it’s not even notably bad enough to qualify for my list of worst scenes ever. Though admittedly, I’ve had to sit through literal rape dungeon scenes in the past, so I guess that was a bit of a high bar to clear. It’s not offensive (other than offensive to my intelligence), it’s not disgusting, it’s not even harboring malicious subtext. It’s just stupid, which in a way is even more damning than any of those, because those at least make it worthy of note, worthy of being discussed, even if that discussion is it getting ripped to shreds by critics. This just deserves to be forgotten. Anyway, my anger at that scene has tired me out a little, and the rest of the plot is so inconsequential that it can be quickly summarized with little issue. So, what happens after that? Wannabe tells the truth in the court scene (I’ll tear this scene a new one shortly), then promptly is forgotten about. And then the “main conflict” is more or less revealed: Can Mouthpiece keep her class for their junior and senior years? You know, despite this being the most cliché conflict ever used in this genre (seriously, every fucking movie does it), I would be willing to forgive it here if they at least present it differently. So… do they do that? If you sincerely think they did, then you clearly have not learned your lesson yet. They present it in the exact same way every other movie in this genre does, with the actual legitimate concerns of the school board portrayed poorly, no actual complexity to their points, and of course, the fake out. A note to every filmmaker doing this plot or any like it: S-T-O-P STOP DOING THE FUCKING FAKE OUT! Not only was it never good to begin with, but it’s been done, and done, and done, and done, and done, so much that it’s just annoying. You’re not fooling anyone, you’re just doing the most boring cliché in the genre again with nothing new or interesting to add to the formula. Stop it. Anyway, the movie more or less ends on that note, so I guess we’re done going over the plot. Moving on.
The effects and cinematography are next on the chopping block. Many a bad plot has been saved by unique and interesting directing and effects in the past (one of my all time favorite popcorn movies, Equilibrium, falls into this category), so that it can at least be somewhat enjoyable as a spectacle, though admittedly I’ve never heard of a drama achieving this. And while LaGravenese is a terrible writer, maybe he has some talent as a director, right? Hahaha… I don’t know why I get my hopes up for anything of the sort. There’s no real aesthetic or visual elements to make this movie look particularly interesting, it’s mostly just flat and bland. But is it at least shot well? I’ll give you a moment to guess. Did you guess “no, it isn’t”? Good, you’re starting to catch on. Not only are most scenes flat and boring, but on occasion, they get utterly infuriating. Remember when I said earlier that I would eviscerate the courthouse scene at a later time? Well, this is that time. In the entire scene, I couldn’t stop mentally screaming “YOU HAVE A TRIPOD! USE IT!”, because it’s shot with some of the most infuriating shaky cam I’ve ever seen. For no reason at all, the camera acts like it’s balanced on a fucking vibrator, and not only does it distract from the scene, but it causes me physical eyestrain. So the directing is utterly abysmal, which is consistent with what we’ve seen so far. Moving on.
Now for the music. The music, much like everything else in this movie, can be slotted into one of two categories: “Boring” and “Obnoxious”. If there’s any instrumental score at all, and I’m not entirely convinced that there is, it all belongs in the “Boring” category. Don’t remember any of it, didn’t notice any of it, it was flat and dull. Now, occasionally they’ll use what I assume is licensed music, and it goes in the “Obnoxious” category. Now, I suppose I should mention I generally despise hip-hop, rap, and associated musical genres, but even if I didn’t these songs are poorly implemented, distracting, and a drain on the overall movie (as surprising as it is that this movie can sink any lower). So that’s the music covered.
You know, what makes this especially infuriating is that this movie did show potential. For 60 seconds, all the problems of the movie vanished, and it did something right. The scene in the Holocaust museum was competently shot, competently acted, had little dialogue, was quiet and atmospheric, and actually did evoke a bit of emotion. So congratulations, Freedom Writers. For the span of a single minute, you didn’t suck.
Overall, this movie is terrible. Utter failure in every way. The characters are either boring or obnoxious, the story is flat and uninteresting, the writing is utterly incompetent, the cinematography is either headache inducing or completely uncompelling, and the music is flat out terrible. Since everything I can list in the film is an abject failure, minus one scene, obviously this grade is not going to be a good one. So, I’m issuing this travesty a D- rating, only escaping and F because there was one scene I liked, and also it never managed to offend me, or be hilariously bad enough that I would watch it ironically. As for level of recommendation, I’m stamping it with an I’LL SEND YOU BACK TO HELL! mark, denoting a terrible work that just doesn’t qualify for the worst of the worst. Hopefully I won’t have to watch anything this awful for a while, but I understand that a lot of my readers have a conscious desire to see me suffer, so… that is not a good sign. I’ll see you next time.