Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal in "'Won't Back Down."
The jury is still out on a solution to the national education system crisis, but the verdict is delivered with a heavy hand and a stacked deck in the formulaic "Won’t Back Down." Simplifying complex school-reform hurdles into tidy inspirational clichés while demonizing both teachers’ unions and bureaucracy-entrenched education boards, the movie addresses timely issues but eschews shading in favor of blunt black and white. It’s old-school Lifetime fodder dressed up in Hollywood trappings.
In the broadest terms, Daniel Barnz’s film, co-written with Brin Hill, is a dramatized counterpart to Davis Guggenheim’s 2010 documentary "Waiting for Superman,” which pointed to charter schools as the only way out of the public-education quagmire. That film was partly financed by Walden Media, the backers of this Fox release, suggesting that the problem of underperforming inner-city classrooms is a pet cause for the company.
In Barnz and Hill’s by-the-numbers screenplay -- which trumpets that vaguest of catch-all legitimization banners, “Inspired by actual events” -- the catalyst for much-needed change at Adams Elementary School in Pittsburgh is crusading Everymom Jamie Fitzpatrick (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Her dyslexic daughter Malia (Emily Alyn Lind) is stuck in a class with a teacher (Nancy Bach) who is a monster of job-secure complacency, and a principal (Bill Nunn) too mired in unionized paralysis to help.
A single mother working two jobs and unable to afford tuition at better alternatives, Jamie bones up on the “fail-safe” maneuver, the film’s equivalent of the parent trigger law. That controversial legislation -- on the books in some form in a handful of states and under consideration in many others -- allows concerned parents and teachers to intervene in floundering public schools. In the film’s example, it primarily means getting past restrictive union controls and a do-nothing education board.
The absurd idea that the parents of an entire student body are too apathetic to worry about their kids’ education until Jamie comes along like some rocker-chick Erin Brockovich is just one of the film’s condescendingly movie-ish conceits. Played with grating one-note pluckiness by Gyllenhaal, Jamie overcompensates for her lack of a college education by self-consciously sprinkling her conversations with words like “trepidatious.” Yet, darned if this scrappy dynamo doesn’t get the whole community galvanized.
Even more objectionable is the depiction of the burned-out staff at Adams. They mill around in the break room bitching about teachers like Malia’s, saying, “The only thing the district does well is protect its mistakes.” But the general lack of motivation is palpable, and even Nona Alberts (Viola Davis), a committed educator like her mother before her, has lost faith in her profession.
The only exception at Adams appears to be Teach For America do-gooder and soulful hunk Michael Perry (Oscar Isaac), who leads his class in line-dancing numbers, accompanying them on ukulele as they sing about “Goin’ to College.” Naturally, this makes Jamie swoon.
A perfunctory romance blooms, but Michael vacillates in his support for Jamie’s cause. Preferring to focus his commitment on his class only, he is reluctant to stray from union-sanctioned guidelines. Jamie’s sole consistent ally is Nona, who risks alienating the entire teaching staff, including her feisty pal Breena (Rosie Perez). While she’s worn down by the challenges of a broken system, not to mention the end of her marriage and the learning difficulties of her own son (Dante Brown), Nona reluctantly gets with the empowerment program.
However, this is another one of those movies where a tenacious white person leads the charge to save inner-city kids, achieving a miracle transformation through sheer force of will. While Nona is the insider with the education experience, she’s second fiddle throughout the fight, getting much of her dignity not from the script but from Davis, who could do this role in her sleep.
In order to provide a gossamer-thin semblance of balance, Barnz and Hill plant one jaded idealist apiece in the teachers’ union and the education board. That essentially leaves Holly Hunter and Marianne Jean-Baptiste playing variations on the same role, both of them primed for redemption as they rediscover their buried convictions. Elsewhere, the opposition is reduced -- most notably by Ned Eisenberg’s belligerently uncompromising union chief -- to a force of obstinate blindness as to what’s good for the kids, and for the majority of disillusioned teachers.
Given the disingenuous way in which this lumbering movie pushes obvious buttons and manipulates the audience’s emotional investment while conveniently skimming the issues, it’s a mystery how some of these names got roped in.
Following her breakout work in "The Help," this is a particularly unhappy use of Davis’ considerable talents. Hunter also is too smart an actor to be stuck playing the transparent construct of a compromised Norma Rae. Lance Reddick (The Wire) is given an entirely thankless role as Nona’s businesslike departing husband, while Ving Rhames is on hand literally to deliver a speech as principal of the exemplary Rosa Parks Elementary School during a lottery draw for new students.
That scene is one of many such preachy interludes in a dumbed-down agenda film that veers shamelessly between didacticism and soap.
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