Review: Won't Back Down


Schoolchildren extras and Viola Davis in Won't Back Down

When I was in elementary school and middle school, we were shown movies like Stand and Deliver or Lean on Me in class. These 1980s-era films were inspired by real men who worked within the strains of the educational system to make a difference. Somehow, although this movie says it's "inspired by real life events," I doubt Won't Back Down will enter this canon. School reform is a touchy issue for many, especially within our current political climate when Wisconsin's governor signs an anti-union law, and Chicago teachers strike.

In Won't Back Down, single mother Jamie (Maggie Gyllenhaal) frets over the way her dyslexic daughter is being taught in her local public school. Which is to say, she's basically not being taught. The girl's teacher leaves a shopping website open on her desk computer, plays with her cell phone during school and punishes kids by not letting them go to the bathroom. My history teacher friend referred to this character as the "Col. Tavington" of this film (that's a reference from The Patriot). She's so despicable that she's unbelievable. This teacher is tenured, and can't be fired in the current school setup. The principal won't let Jamie transfer her daughter to another class, so she's stuck.

Meanwhile, teacher Nona (Viola Davis, who I think is wonderful in anything) is frustrated by her son's slow learning style. Nona and her husband Charles (Lance Reddick, Fringe holla!) are mutually disappointed with each other, and she's pretty much given up in her classroom. She and Jamie meet and eventually team up in an attempt to turn their school around.

Now, here's the misleading thing. The movie is based in Pittsburgh (and was filmed there), and characters playing school district officials talk about a "fail-safe law" that means parents can take over a low-performing public school (with a certain percentage of teacher approval) and make it a charter school. Well, as far as I can tell, no such law exists in Pittsburgh. So far, such "parent trigger" laws have only succeeded in California. But if we are to believe the movie, and perhaps this is the hope of the production company and the movie's backers, parents everywhere should have the right to take over their children's schools.

In Won't Back Down, the people from the teacher's union are the closest thing to antagonists Nona and Jamie face (besides the principal and Col. Tavington-like teacher, obviously). One of the many muddled things about this film is its view of the union. On the one hand, we have Holly Hunter's Evelyn who heads the teacher's union. She is not completely shown in a negative light; she's even downright sympathetic at times. But the union doesn't want the school to change, because then the teachers can't be unionized. So they must be the baddies.

If I can put aside these flawed notions and just consider the movie in general terms, it is mostly sweet. There's a specific scene between Nona and her son (Dante Brown, a great little child actor) where Davis made me tear up. It's hard to buy Gyllenhaal as a high-school dropout, two-job-working single mom, but she's certainly quirky. And so is the editing! There were more than a couple scenes when a quicker cut would have been far less awkward than what was used.

You might enjoy Won't Back Down if you can get past the ridiculous thinking and bizarre politics. But, honestly, I don't know if that's possible. The "message" seems to overpower anything else the movie might have going in its favor.