Both films aim to address serious social issues-- troubled inner city schools in "Writers" and homelessness in "Happyness"-- the former
usually reduced to stock debates about tests and money, the latter largely ignored. Both films are partial antidotes. Both films are anchored by appealing stars giving strong performances.
Hillary Swank perfectly embodies novice teacher Erin Gruwell, initially awkward, idealistic and stubborn, comes into a post-Rodney King uprising, urban California classroom. The culture-shocks of glimpsing
the violence surrounding her students while battling bureaucracy and white teachers' insidious racism, is absolutely credible. Gruwell, increasingly absorbed by her vocation, takes part-time jobs to bring her
students denied resources, alienating her pouty husband, Scott (PatrickDempsey). Using Anne Frank's diary and the Holocaust, Gruwell connects
to the students and unites them past the racial strife their frustrations are funneled into.
The story's primary 'lens' is Gruwell. Even with Swank's radiance, one longs for far more of the students' perspective. Too much of what these
students live with is implied and should have been shown. Rapper Mario has a wrenching moment with his drug-addicted mother. Jason Finn creates
strong presence as a homeless kid, who's story warranted more screen time. April Lee Hernandez' tough teen, Eva, is the exception. Her reactions to Frank's diary are deligtful and she reveals real depth, struggle and change as Eva grapples with conscience versus racial-group loyalty. It's a great performance that should win Hernanedez future roles.
As a volunteer in an afterschool program, I noticed one glaring omission: 'Freedom Writers' doesn't even acknowledge the critical issue of functional illiteracy, with many youth of color reading seriously below grade-level and barely able to write. But, the film does at least give some voice to the insitutional obstacles to truly equitable
education. Given how much loot the entertainment industry makes from glamorizing gangs and reducing them to blood-sport 'action films', the
human consequences for these youth should have been more explored. These omissions make the academic 'victories' a bit too easy.
Gruwell's father, a now-skeptical, former civil rights activist, (Scott Glenn), represents the (too-often empty) pieties of liberals, one of the
film's boldest aspects. Imelda Staunton's cold department head and John Benjamin Hickey's snobby honors teacher are the foils Gruwell challenges
to get her students the education they deserve. Some critics dismiss the two as "stock bad guys". They're dead wrong. 'Freedom Writers' holds up a disturbing mirror: the not-so-soft bigotry and educational
neglect of students of color by white teachers in "failing schools". These are reason enough, along with Swank and Hernandez, not to miss
'Pursuit of Happyness' is powered by Will Smith's inspiring performance. As Chris Gardner, Smith ranges from tenacious optimism to tearful dispair, drawing on just the right bit of his wonderful comic timing.
In the go-go early 1980s, Gardner and his wife, Linda (Thandie Newton) are behind on rent, as he tries to sell a bulky "bone-density machine" to doctors and she works two jobs. Like her character in 'Crash', Newton has the thankless task of playing a one-note 'cold, angry Black woman'. We see how poverty grinds on marriage, (something the Bush Adminstration's denies in their "marriage promotion" aspect of 'welfare reform' ).
How Chris Gardner and his 5-year-old son, (played by Smith's son, Jaden), become homeless and their travails finding shelter are totally believeable: riding buses all night, sleeping in a public restroom and the nightly shelter lottery. Add to this that Gardner aims to sieze the brass ring through an unpaid stockbroker internship, here's a rare look
at economic class in America.
Again, some critics dismiss the white male denizens of Dean Whittier and their wealthy clients as stock 'bad guys". Again they're wrong. Money's
all-pervasive power is palpably rendered. Racism is only alluded to by one of the firm's big-wigs singling out Gardner to act as errand boy.
Although true, Gardner's ultimate rags-to-riches triumph, (he recently sold his own multi-million-dollar financial firm), could be mis-used to affirm free-market capitalism's 'bootstrap' theory. Reality-check: since
Gardner's succesful breakthrough, America's wealth-gap is widening towards 1920s levels.
Playing Muhammad Ali proved Will Smith's acting chops, but, playing someone NOT famous might mean even more. There's echoes of the "Kramer v.
Kramer" syndrome: only when mothers disappear do fathers build the bond with their children. Even so, the real triumph in "Pursuit of Happyness"
is the love between father and child. That love and keeping it real about homelesness, make this a must-see movie.