The success story of English teacher Erin Gruwell (Swank) and her students in Room 203 of Long Beach High School is true. Yet when placed in the hands of writer/director LaGravenese, it becomes indistinguishable from what my colorful friend-of-a-friend Bishop calls “them movies where the cute little white lady goes in and makes everybody love learnin' just because she cares so much.” If Erin Gruwell didn’t exist, screenwriters would invent her. Relentlessly cheerful despite the opening footage of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, Gruwell fails her first few lessons – white girls from Newport Beach shouldn’t lecture to urban gang kids about Tupac – but finally wins her students’ respect with journaling and individualized instruction. I should mention that she implements these classroom techniques, which are not supported by her administration, by buying her kids books and field trips (she’s got two extra jobs, see) and complaining directly to the school board about her pickle-sucking, bureaucratic boss (the redoubtable Staunton, who’s a hoot) without getting fired. So if you’re a classroom teacher, try that, I guess? As her neglected spouse, Dempsey stares off vacantly and suffers from a lack of his own calling before packing up those two symbolic suitcases. LaGravenese thinks he’s being sympathetic to his characters and exploring them deeply, but because of its Hollywood shorthand the movie actually gets dangerously close to suggesting that the answer to the education crisis is workaholic superteachers who can personally compensate for their students’ poverty and social problems – leaving no room for family. Meanwhile, as Gruwell teaches “tolerance” to her African-American and Chicano students using the Holocaust as a model of oppression, I was constantly reminded of Ariyan A. Johnson’s rant from the little-seen Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.
– a far more offbeat and risk-taking film released in 1992, when this one is set – about the greater relevance to people of color of the slave trade, a genocide no less literary. The real-life Gruwell is a sought-after educational consultant, but the movie itself offers few real answers to the problems teachers face. Nonetheless double Oscar-winner Swank is a pleasure to watch; she’s fully tuned in to her character’s gawky, geeky giddiness – the well-intentioned naivete that makes her unsinkable. Also watch out for Hernandez, who makes a strong impression as the classroom’s most troubled student, even though the film’s perspective is muddled by the inclusion of her voiceover.