Freedom Writers (2007)

Freedom Writers
Dir. Richard LaGravenese
Premiered January 5, 2007

Welcome to 2007, the best year for the American moviegoer possibly ever. While a lot of people might prefer 1939 or 1968 or even (Jesus) 1999, 2007 stands out to me personally, and to that end I’ve decided to review an indeterminate number of films from that year, in chronological order. Originally I wanted to showcase the highlights of that year, but in all honesty, curiosity got the better of me with some of these. For that reason, I’ve decided to start in the very first weekend of the year with Freedom Writers.

January is typically peak season for abortive Oscar Bait; the kinds of movies with the pedigree and trademarks of an award winner, but which the studio or distributor has decided isn’t worth it. Is that the case with Freedom Writers?

Well, yes. Inspirational teacher movies had been a joke since “you’re the man now, dog.” School of Rock had been out four years by this time; Hamlet 2 was only a year away. It would have taken a serious re-invention and update to make the genre relevant, and Freedom Writers is anything but. Set in 1990s gangland Long Beach, Hillary Swank plays a rookie teacher who tries to make a difference (say it with me) but struggles to reach these kids until she hits on something new: give them journals to write about their own experiences.

This is actually a good innovation; I haven’t actually seen that many teacher movies, but I’ve seen enough to know that the main character usually tries to get in good with the kids to relate to the pop culture of the time in a way that comes off as condescending and instantly dates the film. Instead of bending over backwards like that, she realizes that the kids need to be heard. I actually really like that. And for that alone, it’s watchable.

Unfortunately, the film struggles to make a coherent plot around it. Freedom Writers is based on a true story, but you can tell where the truth ends and the bad screenwriting begins. The movie’s full of ancillary characters whose attitudes change just to buttress Swank’s arc. Imelda Staunton plays a prissy, bigoted villain that exists mainly to turn up her nose and say something along the lines of “this is mostunorthodox!” The protagonist’s father (Scott Glenn) and husband (Patrick Dempsey) are all over the place too, despite barely being in the movie. And it’s really not necessary. Furthermore, there’s no humor in the film. It’s not soul-crushingly dour, but it comes of as rote and uninspired. C

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Arctic Monkeys – “No Buses”

When: Pre-dawn January 2008
Where: Sierra Madre Villa Station
Who: Nobody
Weather: Cold, wet

There I was, in the dark, waiting for the bus, when I pulled out my air-ukelele. Made everything much better.

After the Starbucks fiasco, my main concern was the primary election. Partly this was because of Obama’s upset in Iowa, partly because I treated elections like sport, partly because of my newfound interest in a show called The Young Turks, and mostly because Bosco is for gambling. My daily schedule was as followed:

Wake up at 4:30 AM, walk to the train, take the train to the bus, the bus to school, spend an hour in the library reading the Wall Street Journal and chatting with Jim Thompson, our school’s resident drunk (he kept a jug of vodka on his desk during class and it was awesome).

English class with Stremel the Republican Hipster, then free period courtesy of being a TA, during which I would either read, catch up on Lost or listen to RadioLab. Then lunch, then design with Big-Time Okeyo, and finally world religions with Jauregui, then home. A perfect blend of social time and solitude.

I was there at five in the morning, waiting for the bus, some drizzle left over that left black ice on the ground. Cenk Uygur was talking about Heath Ledger’s sudden death and posed a question: Accident or Suicide, which was more tragic?

I switched to music.

Next: The crowd is here.

Foo Fighters – “Stranger Things Have Happened”

When: Pre-dawn 17 December 2007
Where: North Lake Avenue
Who: Nobody
Weather: Freezing

It had all been very depressing, and now I was to begin my finals. That morning was colder than it had been since I’d been going out so early. With all the death around me, I went into a small-c christian mood (even though I was Jewish, the terminology is irrelevant) and decided to make up for my more insensitive past. I went to go see Annie.

Next: The Sorrow and the Glory: 2008.

Peter Bjorn and John – “Young Folks”

When: Pre-dawn, December 2007
Where: North Lake Avenue
Who: Nobody
Weather: Icy wind

A month earlier, I’d had some alarming news: Apparently, I was going on strike.

I’d kept up on entertainment business news for a while, but the decision only reached me by way of The Daily Show, which my friend Wyatt and I made a habit of watching on my iPod every morning on the bus to school. At least we did before I started going early. And when Jon Stewart casually announced “Hey, we won’t be here next week!” it was alarming.

Between this and Ira Glass’ declaration that this moment was the golden age of television, my loyalties firmly shifted to the small screen. And I joined in the WGA strike. And that’s when Monty Park started really taking off.

Everybody called me Monty Park. Catholic schoolgirls driving past me in their cars would scream for me. Girls I never met. Monty Park was my ultimate weapon in the war called High School. But I wasn’t the only one. Chester Tam of The Lonely Island wowed a lot of people with How To Become an Internet Celebrity, which got me to download this song, which I’d heard around. Peter Bjorn and John were the kind of band that blended in perfectly with their surroundings, as this and future albums would later reveal.

Next: A Death in the Brotherhood

The Strokes – “Someday”

When: 16 December 2007
Where: My dad’s car
Who: My dad
Weather: Cold, intermittently cloudy

“And now my fears, they come to me in threes.” I’d heard the song countless times for years, but it never struck me the way it did that icy December. It was the sound of things getting worse. It was the sound of the horrible feeling in your stomach when you feel as if the walls are closing in. And, considering the timeframe, it was just about perfect.

Older people had always complained that Bosco lacked unity, that we as a school disparate and apathetic, but while the school’s rapidlt declining state left something to be desired, as students we had never felt closer. To the outside world that was all that mattered; so long as we wore our ties and said intellient things, people thought highly of us.

We were like-minded, mostly in good standing, and no girls to fight over. It came as a shock to the state government how open we were to gays; California public schools at the time might as well have been Saudi Arabia. We made money off each other, we gambled, we got along. And it was at this most crucial moment that everyone started dropping dead.

First it was Victoria in the front office, cancer. And then Brother Gene, cancer again. Coach Yurak was old, to me was just an irritable eccentric, a real Ron Swanson type, but he turned out to be much more, and when he died there was a big outpouring but it wasn’t completely unexpected. Two weeks later, my design teacher of four years died. Alex Chavez was 32, with more friends than you could count, a young son, and an undiagnosed heart defect. For him, we broke out the green ribbons. We didn’t sell them, we just gave them out. It started to feel as if anyone could go, and he wasn’t the last.

People showed up to his funeral from the old days, film club, old teachers, even Mrs. Plummer, who was supposed to be my english teacher back in freshman year but left. I couldn’t make it to the burial. Tomorrow was the beginning of finals. As my Dad picked me up, it played on the radio. A song of desperation hidden behind careful hooks and Motown-style production.

“And now my fears, they come to me in threes.”

Kanye West – “Stronger”

When: 22 October 2007
Where: San Gabriel Boulevard
Who: The Cross Country Team
Weather: Foggy
Book: Shakespeare: The World as Stage by Bill Bryson

In the end, my high school years were dominated by one thing: Girls on Buses. This is the story of the last, definitive girl on the bus.

Shelley was a year below me, a volleyball player at Gabrielino, but she had stopped taking the bus of late. I couldn’t get her out of my head, because I couldn’t stand her. She was a legend at Bosco, everybody knew who she was, despite how few of us had seen her. Towards the end, even those who had started to wonder if I’d imagined her all along. I was having one such argument later on the bus, when I pointed her out and said, “She’s right there, you bastards!”

Beautiful? Yes, even more so among people who take buses in the first place. Tasteful? Surprisingly so. But not intelligent or charismatic enough for me to get past those her failings. She always had a boyfriend, she was twee, manic, and after two years I needed to rid myself of this feeling.

I wrote her a love letter, which I’d planned to deliver the previous February but didn’t get around to. the previous summer I’d thought she’d shown an interest in me, but it was only a douchebag freshman posing as her online, which brought me to where I was at that moment. That Monday, there was no school, but I didn’t tell my mom that so she would drop me off at the bus stop. She wasn’t on the bus, so I gave it to someone who knew her. That night, she emailed me with a resounding “fuck you.”

But there I was, off the bus in San Gabriel. A great weight was lifted off my shoulders, and I was overcome with joy. I listened to this song as my own school’s cross-country team rounded the street corner miles from school. They were training, and they didn’t know what I was doing there; to them I was the hero of another story.

So why was she the definitive girl on the bus? Because of this:

It is worth noting that two weeks ago she and I ran into each other and are now on quite good terms.

Next: The changing face of cold