This is a movie about a dedicated teacher in a gang-ridden high school in the Long Beach, Calif., area, whose students — white, African American, Latino and Asian — are divided along racial lines.
The film is but the latest in a series of good movies with similar plots: “Stand and Deliver,” “To Sir, With Love,” “Lean on Me” and “The Blackboard Jungle” come to mind.
The main character, Erin Gruwell, the schoolteacher, is played by Hilary Swank, with stellar roles played by her students, particularly April Lee Hernandez and rhythm and blues pop star Mario. The setting is Wilson High School.
Since I am married to a retired schoolteacher, the film particularly hit home with me, as I could relate to the problems confronted by teachers as educational workers.
The movie’s title reflects one of these problems: Ms. Gruwell must pay from her own pocket for notebooks for her students to write about their lives. She is also reduced to taking on outside part-time jobs because the administration refuses to pay for classroom materials, field trips and the like.
Later, when I learned that Wilson High was a real high school and that a family member of mine had recently graduated from there, my interest was piqued even more.
Positive aspects of the film include an exposé of the indifferent and racist attitudes of the school administration, holding the lid on what they regard as basically uneducable students. At one memorable point there is a scene showing good books going to waste in a storeroom because the department head says something to the effect that the students would just treat them badly.
Also, there is the inspired acting in all principal parts, which makes the film believable. This includes Gruwell’s husband, played by Patrick Dempsey, who is supportive at first but ends up leaving her.
Negative aspects of the movie include, first and foremost, its message, which is that an individual, dedicated teacher can change for the better what is basically a rotten situation in a rotten economic system, without any need to change that system.
Another problem with the movie is no mention of a teachers union, except in a negative way, when at one point some of the characters talk of the “problems” caused by the seniority system. What does the movie propose then: do away with the seniority system and leave it up to the good graces of the school board and the administration?
Needless to say, in this distorted context it is the enlightened administration that in the end makes it possible for Gruwell to accomplish the miracle of “turning the kids around.”
Unions have found long ago that a seniority system is the only defense against the cronyism that would occur were there no seniority system. This is not to say that union-guaranteed seniority is incompatible with a new teacher’s love for her students.
All in all, this reviewer’s advice is to go and enjoy the movie. It has an excellent anti-racist message. The good outweighs the bad. And as for the bad parts, I doubt that they will fool many.
pappadem68 @ yahoo.com
Directed by Richard LaGravenese
Paramount Pictures, 2007
123 minutes, PG-13