Won’t Back Down is not a story about how a determined mom beat the bad guy teachers’ union. It’s a story about how two determined mothers/educators refuse to accept the status quo and inspire hundreds of other to reevaluate their place and role in the education of their children.
It’s a very affecting and effective film, made stronger by the acting of Viola Davis and, surprisingly, Maggie Gyllenhaal.
Here’s a trailer:
Now the deets:
Released September 28, 2012
Written by Brin Hill and Daniel Barnz
Directed by Daniel Barnz
Starring Viola Davis, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Emily Alyn Lind, Holly Hunter, Rosie Perez, Oscar Isaac, Dante Brown, Lance Reddick, Ving Rhames, Bill Nunn, and Marianne Jean Baptiste
* * * * *
Jamie Fitzpatrick’s (Gyllenhaal) daughter, Malia (Lind), struggles mightily to read– likely due to dyslexia. Malia’s school is a criminally underperforming school, rated as a ‘failing’ school by the state. Teachers there generally want to do a good job, with the exception of Malia’s teacher who is only still a teacher due to union protection. This teacher is despicably bad.
Nona Alberts (Davis), a former teacher of the year, teaches at Malia’s school and has been steadily losing her faith in the system, partly due to her son’s (Brown) struggles with his schoolwork. She wants to make a change for her boy, as does her husband (Reddick), but they disagree on the best thing to do for the lad.
Jamie does her best to find the right way to help her daughter, but discovers that the system is so ungainly and unresponsive that she has zero alternative due to the fact that she has very limited financial resources. You have to admire this woman; she’s got two jobs, is a Steelers fan, and will do anything to get her daughter the help she needs.
Through a frustrating day of inquiries, Jamie finds out that there is a tiny chance that she and other parents could take over the administration of the school, potentially booting the union and having hiring/firing as well as curriculum power. But Jamie needs to get teachers behind the move, so she starts by doing her best to recruit Nona.
Nona is torn between wanting to live up to what she knows is right for students and keeping her job and her friends happy and secure in their jobs. Of course she opts to join forces with Jamie, setting up some tense moments with her colleagues.
Jamie and Nona are a formidable team who simply don’t know when to quit. They recruit teachers and parents, despite the momentum of entropy, and make headway. The main conflict Won’t Back Down is between the the team of Jamie and Nona and the union and the way things have always been done. But the more important conflict, and the reason why this film is effective, is in the hearts of the teachers, administrators, and parents.
The film is based on a true story, so I bet you can guess how it turns out.
More importantly, it takes place in Pittsburgh, so Steelers paraphernalia is in almost every scene. Glorious.
First things first: This movie is not anti-union. It happily points out the weaknesses of teachers’ unions in their current manifestation. It also demonstrates the good things that a teachers’ union does. Won’t Back Down is in fact quite evenhanded when it comes to teachers’ unions, and any interpretation contrary is a fascinating look at the critics who call it anti-union.
This reviewer has difficulty watching Maggie Gyllenhaal. Her acting too often seems designed to disgust or garner some other strong reaction. Gyllenhaal is understated in this film, delivering a very fine, if not nuanced, performance. She’s determined and fairly single-level. But that works, since Jamie is decidedly single-minded.
One note about writing regarding the character of Jamie: the writer did a great job giving her a vocabulary that includes words that don’t really exist, without making an issue of it– providing more nuance to the character. For example, Jamie often called people ‘trepidatious,’ which isn’t a word. Nobody calls Jamie on this, which is fine.
Viola Davis may have the best slow burn of any woman doing films today. The building of her frustration to passion to fury is just so perfect, and her emotional release of that is blindingly moving. You can’t take your eyes off her. Her body language, her face, her smart and warm eyes– they are all infused with the character she inhabits. This is another Oscar-worthy performance.
The writing is good, with a few nods to melodrama and character epiphany that felt a bit artificial, particularly with Oscar Isaac’s love interest character. The emotional payoff of the film is also just a bit artificial, but by that time the audience has been waiting for it long enough that it’s effective.
Won’t Back Down is an effective movie about the power we have to bring change to the world around us if we dig deep. It’s a little shallow on Jamie’s end, but otherwise it depicts characters that make us care deeply about them. We hate the people we’re supposed to hate and we love those we are meant to love. Also, a hat tip to Emily Lind, who plays Malia. She is stupendous, as most child actors tend to be.
Content warnings: Only some language and suggested sensuality.
Writing: 4.5 Acting: 4.5 Overall: 4.5
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