Synopsis: Two determined mothers look to transform their children’s failing inner city school. Facing a powerful and entrenched bureaucracy, they risk everything to make a difference in the education and future of their children.
Stars: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Oscar Isaac, Holly Hunter, Rosie Perez, Lance Reddick, Emily Alyn Lind, Marianne Jean-Baptiste
Director: Daniel Barnz
Running Length: 119 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: Following in the silver screen footsteps of similarly themed David vs. Goliath films, Won’t Back Down will arrive in theaters at the end of September as the youth of America are completing their first month of the new school year. At a time when education issues have seemed to take a backseat to unemployment rates, the timing is right for a movie to remind audiences that we continue to be in the midst of a crisis in the school system. With haphazard direction and a script full of talking points, I’m not sure Won’t Back Down should be the kind of film to represent that movement (2010’s excellent documentary Waiting for Superman did that just fine) but it’s hard to deny its message.
Equal parts Erin Brockovich, Lean on Me, and Norma Rae, Won’t Back Down centers around plucky single mom Jamie (Gyllenhaal) and wise but meek Pittsburgh teacher Nona (Davis) as they work together to turnaround the failing school that Jamie’s learning disabled daughter attends and Nona teaches. The uneducated Jamie is a spitfire who, ahem, won’t back down from a challenge where her daughter is concerned and it’s this fire that inspires Nona to face some of her own demons as they battle school boards, parents, and the teachers union.
Ah…the teachers union. The film seems to want to imply that the union is filled with scheming slimeballs that will resort to scare tactics to keep their hold over the school. Though the film does try to give a sensible voice to the union, in the end it needs a villain to bear the brunt of the blame. While I see the benefits of a union, I don’t necessarily think that bad teachers should be protected just because they hold a union card. As the film states “It’s the bad teachers that make it harder to protect the good ones.” These issues were explored in greater (and more frustrating) detail in Waiting for Superman but the little tidbits we do get provoked the appropriate response in the audience I screened the film with.
Actually, the film is equitable to a fault. At time it feels like we are in the middle of a readers theater version of the pro/con talking points associated with educational reform. For every grand statement about the benefits of a union, there is a calculated counter debate offered to shed light on the other viewpoint. Instead of truly taking a stand and sticking its neck out, at times the film winds up playing Switzerland and backing away from the main discussion.
Director/screenwriter Barnz has a spotty track record in his short career. He helmed the under seen gem Phoebe in Wonderland and followed that up with the beastly Beastly. Here he’s given us a film that never seems to find its rhythm as it swells and sags with the tide. Cinematographer Roman Osin gives the blue collar Pittsburgh town an appropriately chilly vibe at the beginning but gradually introduces warm tones as rays of light start to shine through.
The first hour of the film is rough going as we are introduced to the characters and their roadblocks. Gyllenhaal seems hellbent on staying in full crusader mode…or ‘parentrooper’ as her character describes it. Gyllenhaal storms through scenes with wild eyed abandon that is just this side of too much. Without ever going over the top, it’s close enough that her energy starts to fuel the movie. A sweet but complicated romance with a teacher (Isaac) is thoughtfully presented but beside the point.
The presence of Davis adds some gravitas to the proceedings and I’m not sure if the film would have felt as grounded or inspiring in the latter half without her. Though she battles with the script and some subpar supporting players, Davis finds a way to work through these pain points with a typical ingenuity and grace.
Let me pause to call out that Won’t Back Down has some of the worst background/extra acting I’ve seen in a major motion picture. I’d honestly see the film again just to use a laser pointer to highlight the extras looking into the camera, badly pretending to clap, and just generally horrendous acting. It’s clear a feeling of authenticity in faces was desired here but yeesh…there are some mighty bad players here.
Dressed like the fifth Golden Girl and looking extremely pleased with her performance, Hunter never conveys correctly if she’s the bad guy or the misunderstood pariah as a union rep involved with the case. Hunter is a good actress with natural instincts but she’s curiously bad here, all twangy and dressed in taupe. Rhames is a glorified cameo while Perez would have been better in Hunter’s role.
Entering halfway through the film and with only a few scenes to do her work, Jean-Baptiste should be credited with saving the film as the school board president. From frame one, she gets the job done and effectively pulls the movie and its audience to attention. Though she can’t be present at all of the occasions that need her help, she’s in it enough to rally the troops.
It’s hard to knock a film that has the most genuine of best intentions and this could turn out to be a crowd-pleasing entry in the early fall film schedule. Still, like the mothers/teachers/parents are the forefront of Won’t Back Down shouldn’t we ask for something better? Noble effort all around…let’s call this a B-.