Director: Daniel Barnz
Rating PG. Running Time: 121 mins.
Stars: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Holly Hunter, Rosie Perez
We all can pretty much agree that America's public school system is badly injured, if not broken. Unfortunately, no one has yet come up with the solution, and the search to find one often leads into territory as divisive as our current political landscape. So a well-meaning movie like Won't Back Down, which stars some very fine actors, will undoubtedly have its message obscured by vigorous debate.
In fact, it's already happening. Weeks before Won't Back Down opened in theaters, bloggers began complaining that the solution championed by the film — privatizing schools — is backed by two controversial right-wing organizations. In addition, many have accused the filmmakers of blatant antiunion bias. Regardless of the legitimacy of these arguments, Won't Back Down has the potential to emotionally wake up viewers to our education problems in a way that the excellent 2010 documentary, Waiting For Superman, couldn't.
Bottom line: Kids are the victims here — and parents who care deeply about them are the only ones who truly have the passion to change things. Won't Back Down tells that story in all its very real melodrama; for that alone it's a powerful film.
The movie stars Maggie Gyllenhaal, who plays Jamie Fitzpatrick, a single mom who's trying to get back on her feet and to get her young dyslexic daughter Malia (Emily Alyn Lind of The Secret Life of Bees and J. Edgar) the help she needs at the sorely lacking Pittsburgh public school she attends. Malia's teacher fiddles with her cellphone during class, won't stay a minute after school lets out to help struggling students and punishes kids by locking them in the janitor's closet.
Costarring with Gyllenhaal is the very talented Viola Davis, who plays Nona Alberts, another teacher at the same school whose own son has a learning disability. Jamie and Nona befriend each other and hatch a plan to gather sufficient parental and teacher support to take over the school and install faculty members who will make a difference. (This maneuver has been successful in the real world at two schools in California by way of the state's so-called parent trigger law.) Of course, the pair run up against significant opposition — and not only from the teachers union.
Director Daniel Barnz (Phoebe in Wonderland) milks scenes for sentimentality, and he steadily (as if to a drumbeat) builds the storyline to a roaring, cheering finish. Thanks to nuanced performances by Oscar nominees Gyllenhaal and Davis, as well as Holly Hunter, who plays an ambivalent union representative, and Rosie Perez as another teacher who's reluctant to sign on to the plan, Barnz avoids coming off as too heavy-handed. And a sweet romantic subplot in which Jamie connects with Michael Perry (played by the very cute Oscar Isaac of Drive and Body of Lies), one of the few really good teachers at the school, offers a nice diversion to the high-pitched battle to do right by the kids.
In the same vein as other triumphant teacher tales such as To Sir With Love and Stand and Deliver, Won't Back Down riles us up and reminds us how great a gift a good education can be. And it tells that story at a time when we desperately need to find a way to get all of our kids — and grandkids — into classrooms with teachers who will both inspire them and allow them to succeed.