Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Run Time: 2 hours 1 minute, Rated PG
Starring: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Oscar Isaac, Holly Hunter, Rosie Perez, Lance Reddick, Marianne Jean-Baptiste
Co-written & Directed by Daniel Barnz (Phoebe in Wonderland, Beastly)
Won’t Back Down is an inspirational film from the point of view of a parent. From the point of view of a teacher, and depending on your personal opinions towards teacher unions and/or charter schools, this film may leave you outraged.
In a film that is “inspired” by real events, Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Jamie Fitzpatrick, a single-mother of a 3rd grader attending a failing school in inner-city Pittsburgh. Viola Davis is a teacher at this same school – one of the “good” ones – who also has a child of her own who is struggling to learn. Tired of the lackadaisical approach from administrators and teachers at a school where only 2% of kids go on to college, the parent and teacher team up to attempt a “Parent Takeover” of the school. This is based on a real law referred to as a “parent trigger,” which is a legal maneuver that allows for parents to change the administration of a poorly performing school. Or in other words, make it a charter school.
As drama, Won’t Back Down is effective. As socio-political commentary, it seems biased. It is definitely a one-sided take on the problems facing our education system in America, or at least it would seem so at first glance. As the movie rolls along, it introduces different takes, suggestions and ideas that add to the complexity of the problem. We see just how hard it is to get anything done, and therefore why our education system is in such dire straits.
The big baddies presented in the film though, are the teacher unions. Although it does bring up viewpoints defending unions, they are never really explored, and we are guided to root for the parents and their idea of a parent takeover. Oddly, we are told numerous times throughout the movie that these parent takeovers – when successful – have rarely worked for more than 6 months.
Holly Hunter brings a bit of clarity and sympathy to the pro-union viewpoint, as a union rep who understands the system and is aware of its short-comings. Oscar Isaac is a very effective teacher who also respects unions, but he is torn as to who he should be backing.
My suggestion is, if the topics in this film anger you, at least stick with it. As the film progresses it does seem to peel off new layers and ultimately lands at a conclusion that there are no easy answers or universal fixes. Most importantly, it arrives at the idea that the best interest of the students is what is most important. Whether pro-union or pro-charter school (can one be both?), Democrat or Republican, we should all be able to agree that the children are where the focus should be.
Not being a teacher – despite being surrounded by friends and family who are – I didn’t know enough about the topics raised in the film to really have an intelligent opinion on them, or to know whether or not all angles of the argument were covered. But as rah-rah inspiration, Won’t Back Down is a solid if heavy-handed tale about the importance of effecting change. For that, and for wonderful performances from Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal, Won’t Back Down is worthy of a look, despite the controversial subject matter.
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