Because a dangerous mind is a terrible plot premise to waste, there will always be movies about dedicated teachers who, by dint of the stardom applied to the role, inspire combustible, at-risk kids to open their minds. Freedom Writers is one of those movies square, sincere, and proud of it. Based on a book that teacher Erin Gruwell assembled out of her students' diary entries, this version dramatizes the real-life story of the idealistic young white Gruwell (Hilary Swank) at a Long Beach, Calif., high school, in the angry mid-1990s era following the Rodney King riots, whose underserved lot of black, Latino, and Asian students have been marked to fail. (Vera Drake's estimable Imelda Staunton stumbles over the thankless task of representing the kind of cartoonishly cynical educator who gives up a crummy first Hollywood gig, unstable American accent and all.)
Swank is so earnest, with her big white smile and pleading neck tendons, that it's hard not to embrace the decency and passion of the movie, adapted and directed by Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King). And when the emphasis is off Gruwell and on the kids' own words and lives, so much the better for the drama's narrative energy. The recent shooting death of Armand Jones, one of the charismatic non-pro actors cast as a student, draws awful attention to the reality that anchors this Hollywood extra-credit project.