Neither Half Nelson nor all bad, this white-teacher-uplifts-poor-kids-of-color drama aims to favor the students' stories, which are based on those of real-life Long Beach high-schoolers who wrote their way out of oppression and anonymity in the mid-'90s. But those diary entries too often take a backseat to the film's "Ms. G," played by two-time Oscar-winner and Chad Lowe-survivor Hilary Swank, who makes instantly credible her character's preference of work over marriage to a boring man-behind-the-woman (Patrick Dempsey). Pearls around her neck, our eager-beaver heroine suffers the kids' sarcasm, fails to earn their respect by bringing in a Tupac tape, then wins them over in a crucial scene that, fact-based or not, rings as false as anything in Dangerous Minds. Reaction shots of the class' befuddled white boy are played for cheap laughs, but writer-director Richard LaGravenese otherwise keeps it real by recruiting cinematographer Jim Denault (Our Song) from Indieville High and Imelda Staunton -- here playing Bitchy Old Department Head -- from Vera Drake. And though an early field trip to the Simon Wiesenthal Center strains credibility by occurring on the weekend, it doesn't detract from the movie's most effective lesson: that teaching isn't just for teachers.
Richard LaGraveneseHilary Swank, Patrick Dempsey, Scott Glenn, Imeldaa Staunton, April Lee Hernandez, Mario, Kristin Herrera, Jaclyn Ngan, Sergio Montalvo, Jason FinnFreedom Writers, Erin Gruwell, Richard LaGraveneseDanny DeVito, Michael Shamberg, Stacey SherParamount Pictures