It's 1994 in Long Beach, California. Idealistic Erin Gruwell is just starting her first teaching job, that as freshman and sophomore English teacher at Woodrow Wilson High School, which, two years earlier, implemented a voluntary integration program. For many of the existing teachers, the integration has ruined the school, whose previously stellar academic standing has been replaced with many students who will be lucky to graduate or even be literate. Despite choosing the school on purpose because of its integration program, Erin is unprepared for the nature of her classroom, whose students live by generations of strict moral codes of protecting their own at all cost. Many are in gangs and almost all know somebody that has been killed by gang violence. The Latinos hate the Cambodians who hate the blacks and so on. The only person the students hate more is Ms. Gruwell. It isn't until Erin holds an unsanctioned discussion about a recent drive-by shooting death that she fully begins to ...Written by
This is the latest in a long line of "teacher features" "Good-bye Mr Chips", "To Sir With Love", "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie", "Dead Poets' Society" etc. In these films the teacher is the hero or heroine, often coming to some disadvantaged school and taking over a class dismissed by the timeservers as hopeless, and producing sparkling results. The strength of this movie, which is based on fact, is not so much in the performance of the "heroine" teacher (which is all one could ask for) but in the focus on the pupils themselves. They come from such disturbed backgrounds from the Long Beach, California, of the early 90s it is a wonder some of them are still alive, let alone at school. Many have lost brothers and sisters in gang warfare, been abused by police, mistreated by their parents and generally neglected. But when Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank), provoked by the manifest racism in the class, gets them to write about themselves, their attitude changes from surly distain to an eagerness to learn.
Naturally Ms Gruwell strikes the usual obstacles threatened other teachers, lack of money (she takes on extra jobs to pay for school materials), skeptical management, though not much parental opposition as many are dead, or in jail. Her own family is not supportive in fact her "neglected" husband eventually leaves her though her father at least has the decency to congratulate her when she succeeds. But she and the kids triumph over all of that and the kid's writing is eventually published (not to mention the feature film).
Once you do see what the kids are up against it is impossible not to feel the profoundest sympathy for them. Ms Gruwell's greatest achievement is to bring them to the realization that they are all black, latino, Asian - brothers and sisters beneath the skin. At the end it is difficult for them to let go, but they are emotionally in immeasurably better shape than on the day she walked in to the class two years earlier.
Of course Ms Gruwell is not without her critics, particularly Margaret (Imelda Staunton) her head of department and Brian (John Hickey), another English teacher (the latter a true prick, in my opinion though both look like composite characters). They do have a point; in a large public education system the goal has to be the greatest good for the greatest number, and some are going to be left behind because their needs are too great. But Ms Gruwell does show that even meager resources can make a difference, if intelligently deployed, and the higher management has the sense not to intervene. Maybe she is going to wind up with her graduates the best writers in jail, but even that's an achievement, considering their background. The photo at the end of the picture suggests a great number of them survived and even thrived.
Hilary Swank, who has the best eager beaver manner in the business, is pretty well definitive as Erin, but some of the kids are stunning as well, particularly April Hernandez as Eva, the hardest nut to crack, Jason Finn as Marcus and Deance Wyatt as Jamal. They are a bit old for their parts (the kids were meant to be about 16) but their conviction carries them through. Some of them are non-professionals but as a group they are terrific.
This will not doubt not be the last teacher feature to be made but it will go down as one of the better ones. The real hero here is education, or enlightenment, a hero whose praises we cannot sing enough.
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