A Pound of Flesh: Erin Gruwell demands more of her students.

There probably aren’t enough real-life stories of righteous white teachers in the inner city to supply all of today’s A-list Hollywood actresses, but now Hilary Swank’s got hers. Following the lead of Michelle Pfeiffer (Dangerous Minds) and Meryl Streep (Music of the Heart), Swank plays a fictionalization of Erin Gruwell, who reportedly transformed a classroom of ethnically polarized Long Beach high-schoolers by encouraging them to keep diaries. Written and directed by Richard LaGravenese, who scripted such rural yarns as The Bridges of Madison County, Freedom Writers is a glib but effective uplift melodrama. A well-meaning child of privilege—you can tell from the strand of pearls she doggedly wears—Erin wades into the snake pit that is Woodrow Wilson High. Her African-American, Latino, and Cambodian-refugee students are surly and understandably distracted; gang wars, drive-by shootings, and fractured families steal time from schoolwork. And the faculty and administration (including Vera Drake’s Imelda Staunton in a role that challenges nothing but her American accent) insist that Erin’s students can’t learn and won’t benefit from the extracurricular texts and trips the new teacher takes multiple jobs to finance. The breakthrough comes when Erin, criticizing her students’ clannishness, refers to the Holocaust. Only the class’s lone white kid knows what that is, so The Diary of Anne Frank enters the syllabus. Then Erin hands out the diaries, whose entries help the students examine their own lives and give their teacher insight into their troubles. Every kid tells a story, but the class’s collective progress is exemplified by Eva (April L. Hernandez), who must decide if she will perjure herself to protect her gang. Swank doesn’t stretch behind her usual pluckiness—albeit without literal boxing gloves—and the plot skirts issues that must have been significant, like the literacy of long-discounted students suddenly asked to express themselves in words on paper. But in advocating the noble idea that many neglected high-schoolers could be redeemed if only their teachers cared more, Freedom Writers feels right—or at least as if it should be right.