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 for occurring on the weekend, it doesn't detract from the movie's most effective lesson: that teaching isn't just for teachers.
Director: Richard LaGravenese
Writer: Freedom Writers, Erin Gruwell and Richard LaGravenese
Producer: Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg and Stacey Sher
Cast: Hilary Swank, Patrick Dempsey, Scott Glenn, Imeldaa Staunton, April Lee Hernandez, Mario, Kristin Herrera, Jaclyn Ngan, Sergio Montalvo and Jason Finn