Though the "inspirational teacher" theme may feel done to death, Freedom Writers succeeds because it emphasizes the students as much as the teacher. Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank, Million Dollar Baby, Boys Don't Cry) comes to a southern California high school bubbling over with naive optimism, but quickly discovers that her unruly classroom isn't easily won over by her good intentions. After a few floundering attempts to connect with her students, Gruwell gives them the assignment of keeping journals about their own lives - an assignment that the class bites into with relish, which eventually bonds them together and pushes racial rivalries aside. This plotline has been made before, sometimes well, sometimes poorly. Freedom Writers, by drawing heavily from the published journals of the students (and thanks to a mostly unheroic script, direction that emphasizes individual characters over stereotypes, and rigorous performances from the whole cast)makes the story seem fresh and genuine. Swank does solid work, but the standouts are April L. Hernandez as a girl whose gang wants her to lie and send an innocent boy to jail and Imelda Staunton (Vera Drake) as a teacher who resents Gruwell's offbeat success. Also featuring Patrick Dempsey (Grey's Anatomy), Scott Glenn (The Right Stuff), and a plethora of strong young actors.