Taking on the school choice issue that has made its way into the headlines via California’s controversial new parent trigger laws, Won’t Back Down faces an uphill climb at the box office. Its heroes are the parents and renegade teachers who risk everything to improve the education of children in failing schools. Its villains are the teachers’ unions that stand between a million rules and restrictions and the chance of a better life for a handful of children. The movie is going to be controversial, depending on how you feel about labor unions. My feeling is that the schoolroom is no place for political agendas, and all that matters is how good a movie it is. And it is pretty good, but flawed for a number of reasons, detailed below. Nevertheless, it’s a film that deserves to be seen, savored, debated and given serious attention.
Set in Pittsburgh, the narrative centers on two mothers so appalled by the inner-city educational system that is leaving their children sub-literate that they set out to change it by closing down their children’s elementary school and starting one of their own. This is perfectly legal, but doesn’t begin to cover the obstacles mounted by administrators, union officials, school boards and teachers terrified of losing their pensions, not to mention the powerful and implacable bureaucracy that makes progress impossible. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Jamie Fitzpatrick, a poor but spunky working-class mom who juggles three jobs to keep her dyslexic eight-year-old daughter in a school that neglects her needs. Viola Davis is Nona Alberts, a dedicated teacher at the same school, whose son has learning challenges of his own that require home tutoring. These children face inadequate teachers, overcrowded conditions and the kind of institutional apathy that passes students yearly who cannot read or write, just to get rid of them. Seizing on the new fail-safe laws that entitle disgruntled parents to turn the schools around, Jamie decides to bite the bullet and try. The process is designed for failure. First she has to rally 50 percent of the parents and teachers, then she must plow through miles of red tape, make appointments to petition the school board and plead her case—if she’s lucky enough to get a hearing. Against all odds, the reluctant Nona and the indefatigable Jamie build their case like a bridge, screwing in one bolt at a time. Printing flyers, staging rallies, baking cookies, ringing doorbells, cornering parents in the streets and parking lots, they are fueled by passion, and their never-say-quit idealism rubs off on others. Jamie begins as a concerned parent who wants to get her kid into a better school but can’t afford to move and meets nothing but rejection from the school principal—and she ends up a militant activist who “won’t back down.” In the process, the two women and the teachers and parents they convert to their cause are taught a few lessons themselves—about friendship, commitment, humanity and pride. If you don’t mind a few sentimental cobbles, there is still the dual magic of Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis, two stars who know a thing or two about conveying courage on the screen.
This is Norma Rae with chalk and erasers in place of a sewing machine, except for one major difference—this time it’s the unions that stand in the way of progress. With that in mind, it’s little surprise that political conservatives at the press screening I attended booed loudly. For the most part, the direction by Daniel Barnz is clear and substantial, and the screenplay, by the director and Brin Hill, is meticulously researched and stumble-free. As a message picture, its heart is in the right place. Too bad it doesn’t always manage to rise above a swirl of predictable Hollywood clichés. Jamie’s crusade pays off and lands her a boyfriend in the bargain, the children overcome their learning disabilities in record time, and the ogres on the school board reverse their opposition in a victory for the good guys that is too good to be true. And forgive my cynicism, but I had a hard time finding it credible when the conniving union representative (Holly Hunter) who threatens to destroy the women’s idealism applauds her own union’s defeat, even though it costs her her job. Oh well, she says. She can always go back to teaching.
WON’T BACK DOWN
Running Time 120 minutes
Written by Brin Hill and Daniel Barnz
Directed by Daniel Barnz
Starring Viola Davis, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Holly Hunter