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‘Won’t Back Down’ is overly schmaltzy and dramatically inert

Won’t Back Down

Directed by Daniel Barnz

Written by Brin Hill and Daniel Barnz

USA, 2012

The modern educational system is full of corporate bureaucracy, personal frustrations, and district-, state-, and nationwide complications. In short, the system is labyrinthine at best, broken at worst. And as much as we try to think of education in a general sense, it’s immensely personal to each of us. You may not have kids, but you may have brothers or sisters who do, or young nieces and nephews, or a set of horror stories from your classroom experience. Each of us brings something unique to our beliefs about what’s right and wrong about education today, and what needs to be done to fix it—or, in fact, if it needs to be fixed. Making a fictional movie highlighting perceived flaws inherent in the system is admirable and full of good intentions, but even the most sharply written and flawlessly acted film would lose many of the complexities in the jump from reality to the silver screen. Won’t Back Down is, sadly, not tightly scripted and has only one impressive performance, relying instead on being overly schmaltzy and one-dimensional.

Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Jamie Fitzpatrick, a Pittsburgh single mother who’s working two jobs just so her 8-year old daughter, Malia (Emily Alyn Lind), can get a decent public education. Unfortunately, Malia is dyslexic, with serious reading comprehension issues; worse, her teacher is ineffectual and happy to sit on the sidelines while students bicker and fight amongst each other. After all, the teachers at this elementary school are unionized and safe from any serious blowback. When Jamie learns of a new law that lets parents and teachers take over a school from the public system after jumping through the appropriate hoops, she enlists the decent, goodhearted teacher Nona Alberts (Viola Davis) to create a proposal and encourage educators and parents to support it.

At its core, Won’t Back Down is a feel-good melodrama. Director Daniel Barnz (who co-wrote the film with Brin Hill), however, throws in a fair amount of anti-union editorializing. Because this is a two-hour movie “inspired” by actual events, Barnz and Hill have only so much time to dedicate to each character, subplot, and point they’re trying to get across in their muddled overall message. As such, Won’t Back Down ends up feeling scattered, overstuffed, and underdone all at the same time. The characterization of Jamie is especially troublesome; she’s the ostensible hero, a working-class mother who wants to do right by her kid. However, Gyllenhaal translates this idealism into abrasive bullying. This pushiness is, perhaps, meant to be admirable, but Jamie comes off as sounding, weirdly, selfish. It feels less like a crusade on behalf of her child, and more about her personal goals.

Most frustrating is the film’s laughable decision to almost never show us the effect poor teaching has on actual children. Malia is mentioned frequently in the story. Hell, there’s a chance the young actress playing her is in less of the film than it takes for other characters to continually say Malia’s name. The juxtaposition between what’s at stake versus how the movie treats what’s at stake comes in a truly ironic and tone-deaf moment at the end: Jamie turns to her daughter and tells her this entire controversy is because she wants Malia to have more opportunities than she did. Then she whips around, obscuring Malia from our view.

Nona’s son Cody also has issues grasping elementary knowledge, potentially due to a haunting choice from his mother’s past. Davis is—and this can’t be said enough—an exceptional actress, a raw, emotional performer whose sullen, downtrodden face belies seemingly unending trauma. Although what leads up to her big reveal—and, frankly, the reveal itself—is extraordinarily sentimental pablum, Davis does her very best to make Nona’s grief feel real. Far more than Gyllenhaal, Davis is the truly excellent part of the otherwise enervating Won’t Back Down.

The rest of the cast is decent, but they don’t get a chance to make a serious impact. Oscar Isaac, popping up in another supporting role where he’s sorely needed, plays both the love interest and the pro-labor-but-not-really-sure-if-he’s-for-modern-unions character. He’s meant to represent the gray area of the story, but the character isn’t strongly written enough to feel whole. Won’t Back Down chooses to either completely lionize or demonize its characters. The mentality is awfully close to saying “You’re with us or you’re against us,” making the film too cartoonish and naïve. In smaller roles, Holly Hunter (as a conflicted union mouthpiece) and Marianne Jean-Baptiste (as a feisty county board member) do their best with meager material, trying not to flounder as forgettable characters.

The American educational system is hopelessly screwed up, mired in red tape and political in-fighting. Something should be done about it. Parents and educators should be involved deeply in the process. On these basic points, it’s hard to argue with Won’t Back Down, an earnest if misguided and dramatically inert polemic. But both as a fictional film, and as a supposed treatise on education, this thing stumbles a lot. There are rays of light in Won’t Back Down, too few and far between. Whatever inspiration you may derive from this film will likely lead you to realize that the world isn’t as black and white as presented here. The world is aggravating, but your fellow man isn’t often going to be a saint or a mustache-twirling villain. A truly essential film dealing with these issues would embrace the ability to expand each character and their motivations, to make them three-dimensional. Won’t Back Down is content taking the easy way out.

— Josh Spiegel