By Mandi Bierly
Updated January 05, 2007 at 08:11 PM EST

Does “predictable” always equal “bad?” That’s the question on critics’ minds while watching Freedom Writers, the true story of Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank, pictured at right), the new teacher of freshman English at a racially-divided California high school, who … well, you know. Variety‘s John Anderson seems to be saying the answer is no: “Another movie about a well-meaning, white-bread teacher thrust among the savages? No, not by a long shot. Although Freedom Writers is the latest in a long line of saint-saves-students stories, it takes the bold approach of being earnest, honest and unafraid to be called naive. As a result, it’s extremely affecting.”

Las Vegas Weekly‘s Josh Bell, however, appears rather confident that the answer is yes. He contrasts Writers with the recent, more unconventional Half Nelson, in which Ryan Gosling played a crack-addicted teacher: “And not that she needed a crack habit, but Erin herself is so unbelievably saintly — and her fellow teachers so snivelingly evil — that she’s impossible to believe as anything more than an inspiration-bot. Every student is fundamentally good and easily taught and reformed, and the eventual triumph of the human spirit is so predetermined that it’s not particularly satisfying. The music swells, the tears well up, Swank smiles lovingly, and the crack pipe starts to look rather appealing.”

And we’re not quite sure which side the Los Angeles Times‘ Kevin Crust falls on: “Dramatically, the movie never veers from its predictable course, but Swank’s performance renders the point moot. There likely was a better, more original movie to be made focusing more on the Freedom Writers themselves, but if this more conventional direction had to be taken, it’s hard to imagine a more affecting version.”addCredit(“Freedom Writers: Jaimie Trueblood”)

Another debate: Just how marvelous is two-time Oscar winner Swank? You gotta love The New York Times‘Manohla Dargis’s backhanded compliment: “Ms. Swank is an appealingactress of, at least to date, fairly restricted range. In her finestroles — a transgender man in Boys Don’t Cry, a boxer in Million Dollar Baby –she plays women whose hard-angled limbs and squared jaws never fullyobscure a desperate, at times almost embarrassingly naked neediness. InFreedom Writers Ms. Swank uses that neediness to fine effect in a film with a strong emotional tug and smartly laid foundation.” And The Hollywood Reporter‘sKirk Honeycutt’s upfront diss: “Swank, who exec produced the film,marches through the story with a curiously inappropriate grin on herface. No teacher in America could possibly smile this often. Never oncedo you see the iron in the character that enables her to cope andconnect with such challenging students.”

Finally, no Reviewing the Reviews would be complete without a special shout-out to Eleanor Ringel Gillespie of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.The highlight of her critique: “A firecracker named Eva (April LeeHernandez) bluntly asks, ‘What are you doing in here that would make adifference in my life?’ Good point. Teaching Homer to homeys seemsabout as useful as teaching aerobics to the homeless.”

Girl, you crazy.