Americans desperately need to have some difficult conversations about the state of public education, but Won’t Back Down goes about the task too awkwardly to be helpful or interesting. A story “inspired” by real events, the film feels more like an anti-union screed than an inspiring story of educators and parents taking chances to improve a failing school. You can tell by the way the script carefully places token pro-union sentiments in the mouths of some of its characters, then sets up pro-union forces as the ultimate villains of the piece. Nothing wrong with a movie having a point of view, but watching people spout jargon or exposition doesn’t really make for riveting entertainment.
Won’t Back Down tries to make up for its clumsiness by casting two formidable actresses in the lead roles. Oscar nominee Viola Davis (The Help) plays Nona, a discouraged elementary school teacher in Pittsburgh worn down by bored kids, uninterested parents and the bureaucratic red tape that greets any proposed classroom innovations. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Jamie, a single mom whose dyslexic daughter attends second grade at the same school and is stuck in a class where she’s bullied and gets no help from her abusive, lazy teacher.
Jamie tries and fails to get her kid into a different class. Then she learns that if she collects enough signatures from parents and teachers, she can petition the school board to take over the school. The film is extremely vague on significant details — Who makes decisions on hiring teachers and administration? Who sets the curriculum? Do parents have as much say as the teachers? — but one thing is certain: The union won’t allow its members to join such an endeavor.
Won’t Back Down follows Jamie and Nona’s attempts to enlist parents and teachers in their cause. Director Robert Barnz (Beastly) and his co-writer Brin Hill don’t know how to dramatize the real meat of their story, so they keep things simplistic by adding unnecessary window dressing that drags down the story, such as Jamie’s flirtation with a talented music teacher (Oscar Isaac) who worries about giving up union security or the secret that Nona bears about her learning-disabled son.
That melodramatic secret literally comes out of nowhere, underscoring the fact that the screenwriters aren’t able to create tension with the conflicts they’ve already set up. Nor are they bothering to examine the hard, unpleasant questions related to this subject. Should a teacher be willing to put in extra unpaid hours to help students at the expense of their personal lives? Should teachers be allowed to put the desire for financial security over students’ needs? Shouldn’t parents also be held accountable for the education of their children? Does anyone really want their kids’ curriculum set by a high school-educated bartender whose best suggestion to improve the school is that students “visualize” success à la The Secret? You’re not a snob for asking — you’re just a parent. But for a film that claims to be all about the hopeful possibilities of change, Won’t Back Down prefers to showcase its own rah-rah agenda rather than debate the ideas that matter.
Cast: Viola Davis, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Holly Hunter, Oscar Isaac.
Director: Daniel Barnz.
Screenwriters: Brin Hill, Daniel Barnz.
Producer: Mark Johnson.
A 20th Century Fox release. Running time: 121 minutes. Thematic elements, language. Playing at area theaters