Won’t Back Down (2012)

Starring: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Oscar Isaac, Holly Hunter, Rosie Perez, Emily Alyn Lind, Dante Brown, Lance Reddick, Ving Rhames, Bill Nunn, Nancy Bach, Ned Eisenberg, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Liza Colon-Zayas.

Director: Daniel Barnz
Rating: PG (for thematic elements and language.)
Running Time: 121 Minutes
Release Date: September 28, 2012
Home Video Release Date: TBD
North American Box Office: $TBD

Walden Media, Gran Via Productions, and Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

Written by: Brin Hill and Daniel Barnz.

This review was originally published on The Rogue Valley Messenger.
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1/2 (out of 5 stars)

Always an incendiary topic for discussion and debate, education reform is an issue that everyone seemingly has an opinion on.  The rise of charter schools, as an alternative in many communities to troubled public schools, has become the go-to option for fixing the ills affecting the current populace of kids metriculating through public schools and graduating, in an academic sense, behind the heights achieved by past generations.

Good people on both sides of the education reform offer ideas and fixes, but few ever agree on the solutions.  Funding education is always said to be a priority, but in my home state of Washington, our governors and state congress have continually slashed budgets affecting public education across-the-board.  Democrats and Republicans alike use the education reform buzz words in their campaign flyers, leaflets, and speeches, but little is ever done to fix existing problems.  People may agree that bad teachers must go but no one has ever been able to determine an objective way in which to evaluate what defines a good and bad teacher.  Crumbling facilities and lack of resources are blamed on teacher’s unions advocating for everything but what is in the best interests of the children, yet little is acknowledged to recognize that unions have allowed teachers good benefits and pension and fought for reduced class sizes.  As much a thorny issue as it is a cloudy one, the debates seem to exist in a cipher.

Won’t Back Down attempts to address the issue of education reform by preaching a message that when the system fails, parents are the answer.  Daniel Barnz’s film is reportedly inspired by a true story from 2010 where parents in a suburban Los Angeles school invoked a law which allowed parents to overtake the school, eliminate the educators and curriculum that were not working, and make the school something to be proud of.  All of this sounds well and good, but Won’t Back Down dumbs down and simplifies the process so succinctly, too comfortably veers towards ridiculousness, that the film verges on both unintentional comedy and arrogance, thus squandering any legitimacy in the film’s argument and advocacy.

As a teacher at the failing Adams Elementary School in a bleak and dreary Pittsburgh community, Nona Alberts (Viola Davis) is trying to reach her students.  Day after day her efforts go nowhere and when she relays these frustrations to fellow teachers, they are equally as exasperated or have completely checked out.  Alberts keeps pressing and attempting to breakthrough with her disinterested students, while single mother Jamie (Maggie Gyllenhaal) works two jobs, while trying to make sure that her young third grade daughter Malia (Emily Alyn Lind) stays on track as a recent transplant into the Adams school.  Malia unfortunately ends up in the class of the laughably ridiculous Texting Teacher Who Yells And Demeans Her Students and understandably Jamie wants to remove Malia from her class.  Suffering from dyslexia, Malia is in need of extra assistance after school and no one is willing to offer the help Malia had at her last school.  Additionally, the school does not offer any after school programs and Jamie cannot afford private tutoring.

When Jamie cannot make any headway with school administration, she enters Malia into a charter school lottery where 500 students attempt to secure 40 spots spread out over several grades.  Jamie and Malia are hoping for one of 3 slots and when her name is not called, Jamie is distraught.  Also at the lottery is Nona, who learns of the lottery too late to enter her special needs son, Cody, but attempts to speak to the principal (Ving Rhames), only to be rebuffed and cut off when Jamie recognizes her and confronts her. 

A little research convinces Jamie that she has the ability to overtake the school and she puts the full court press on not only Nona, but also a teacher who is innovative and outward thinking, Michael (Oscar Isaac).  Understanding that a law exists where parents can petition the School Board to overtake a school with a specific number of parent and teacher endorsements, Jamie and Nona decide to reverse course at Adams, drawing controversy, support, and a tactical smear job from high placed district officials.

I actually find some inspiration in the story of Won’t Back Down, and completely recognize how efforts such as those on display here can galvanize people to action.  But in all honesty, screenwriters Brin Hill and Daniel Barnz have crafted such an off-putting and gregarious screenplay that all of the people standing in the way of Nona and Jamie are patently absurd.  At times, I envisioned Won’t Back Down working better as a fantasy adventure film where Nona and Jamie are gladiators or warriors, slaying evil monsters and beasts with advanced weaponry, the next monster even bigger and more diabolical than the last.  Honestly, the way Daniel Barnz presents this story, the comparison is an apt one.

Beyond frustrating is the way in which Won’t Back Down squanders three strong performances from Viola Davis, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Oscar Isaac.  Isaac is conflicted, relaying to Jamie firsthand how unions allowed an avenue for his father to become an educator.  Of course, Hill and Barnz force a love story between Isaac and Gyllenhaal upon us, which serves next to no purpose whatsoever.  Gyllenhaal is terrific, trying to turn lemons into lemonade here by balancing desperation and interior vulnerability with an unwavering confidence that she will succeed.  And it should come as no surprise that Viola Davis is as luminous as always, nearly saving this thing with such conviction and heart that you can almost overlook the exaggerations on display.  Almost.

Some will see Won’t Back Down and cheer the message, as many did in my press screening.  However, as someone who works for an education foundation and whose wife is a public school teacher, I cannot recall ever seeing a teacher vocalize that they only stay in their job because they have earned tenure and cannot be fired.  Or eschew teaching lessons and give desk work while they text and play games on their smartphones.  Whatever truth is to be found within Won’t Back Down, and notably Roger Ebert points out that the credits are silent regarding this being based on actual events, these opposing characters are not real people.  They are boogeymen, freak shows, political talking points brought to life, thus rendering Won’t Back Down as dishonest as the politicians who play the education reform card simply to get elected.

SHOULD I SEE IT?
YES
  • Champions of school choice will likely laud the film and advocate for it.  A pro-Charter Schools organization co-sponsored our screening; ironic because the film actually paints charter schools in a negative light, but I digress.
  • Viola Davis is fantastic as always, with Maggie Gyllenhaal strong and Oscar Isaac continuing to quietly build a strong resume of good work.  If you see the film, you will not be disappointed in the slightest by these performances.
  • Won’t Back Down will foster great conversation about the public vs. private vs. charter school debate.
NO
  • A mess of a film that is so over-the-top, its arguments and thesis simply cannot be considered reasonably.
  • I can see this obviously infuriating public school employees and supporters, but also those in the charter school camp.  So, I really am not sure who this is targeting then.
  • Documentaries do this work much better, and Waiting For Superman and The Lottery may be a much more interesting and rewarding option for those interested in this topic.
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