Won’t Back Down is as strident and willfully heart-plucking as you’d expect from a movie about two mothers from different socio-economic backgrounds who want to change the broken school system.
Maggie Gyllenhaal is as charming as ever as Jamie Fitzpatrick a single mom working two jobs who has a punky plucky look about her. (We should note her visible tattoos lack of a college education and financial struggles as a marker of a wild and free past that she now regrets or even worse doesn’t regret at all.) Her equally adorable daughter Malia (Emily Alyn Lind) is dyslexic and the public school she’s at Adams is full of zombie-fied teachers who fail upwards or just plain phone it in. Jamie can’t afford sending Malia to the private school that was starting to help her and all the teachers at her new school are like “Whatever my shift ends at 3 PM see ya!” because of unions. Their only hope is a charter school with a few precious slots open. (The charter school’s headmaster is played by Ving Rhames so you know he gets s**t done.) Of course Malia doesn’t snag a spot there despite her mom’s aforementioned pluck and cute prayers to “foxy lady luck.”
When Jamie sees Nona Roberts (Viola Davis) one of the teachers from her daughter’s school at a lottery for a charter school Jamie corners her. She tries to get Malia transferred to Nona’s class but that doesn’t work. Why she does this isn’t clear since we saw Nona’s class at the beginning and Nona was one of those teachers phoning it in; none of her students are paying attention to her as she drones on and who could blame them? They don’t care that she’s actually a highly educated woman who was once fired up about education and changing lives and all that inspired by her late mom’s work as a teacher and her students’ lifelong love. But whatever that doesn’t work either and with her can-do attitude Jamie stumbles upon the “Pennsylvania Fail-Safe Act.”
Won’t Back Down relies on the Fail-Safe Act as its hook which is problematic because while it is based on “parent trigger laws “ it’s also sort of made up. This makes things especially confusing since “Won’t Back Down” is basically a call to arms for parents to take charge of their children’s schooling and the movie oversimplifies a complicated matter. As someone who isn’t a parent isn’t involved in any sort of labor movement and is barely privy to the trials and tribulations of my friends who are teachers (even one who used to work at a charter school) even I know that this movie is a big flashing neon sign of a message about how great charter schools are. Although it touches on how it’s more complex than that through the character of the hot hippie teacher love interest Michael (Oscar Isaac) the characters who are in support of or belong to the teachers’ union are generally vilified. It is perhaps worth mentioning that production company Walden Media was also involved in the documentary Waiting for Superman which highlighted the struggles of a few families hoping to get their kids into charter schools. We can assume that whatever “actual events” this movie is based on didn’t include a cute single mom with a can-do attitude and a teacher who suddenly finds her joie de vivre once again by osmosis.
Everything is as on the nose as the theme song by Tom Petty. This is to say nothing of the uninspired direction which relies heavily on dark grays and blue tones at the beginning to denote how depressing and hopeless everything is and eventually turns to rosier tones as things begin to come together. The music is equally overbearing. As if we didn’t get it “Norma Rae” is even invoked.
Won’t Back Down wastes a very talented cast on a story that has no real arc as any possible question the viewer might have about the story is answered by the very title. They won’t back down. Maggie Gyllenhaal won’t back down. Viola Davis won’t back down. Oscar Isaac wants to back down but is way too smitten to stick to his pro-labor stance. Even Holly Hunter an executive-type teachers’ union person who waxes philosophical about how much unions meant to her family eventually backs down. And Rosie Perez as a fellow frustrated teacher? You guessed it. While it’s clear that the filmmaking team behind Won’t Back Down care a great deal about a crucial issue facing America today dumbing down something so complex for mass consumption is not the way to fix anything. And it’s certainly not a way to make a good movie.