Movie review: 'Won't Back Down' sets up a dubious debate
The public-school drama "Won't Back Down" aims to be inspirational, a call to arms for parents and teachers, as well as a dialogue starter in the mold of Davis Guggenheim's documentary "Waiting for 'Superman' " about how to fix America's broken education system.
But director Daniel Barnz, who co-wrote the script with Brin Hill, doesn't create dialogue. Instead, this "inspired by actual events" story sets up phony straw-man arguments, demonizing one side of the "debate" specifically, teachers unions so thoroughly that you half-expect them to put on black karate uniforms and sweep Ralph Macchio's legs out from under him.
The heroines of this story are two Pittsburgh mothers whose children are failing in, or being failed by, their schools. Jamie Fitzpatrick, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, is a hard-working single mom whose dyslexic daughter, Malia (Emily Alyn Lind), is floundering in second grade at Adams Elementary, saddled with an uncaring but tenured teacher (Nancy Bach). Across the hall, teacher Nona Alberts (Viola Davis) is uninspired, stressed over the disintegration of her marriage and how it's affecting her son Cody (Dante Brown), who's in a remedial program.
Jamie, dejected after Malia loses a lottery for a slot in a charter school, pushes Nona to help "take over" Adams as a parent-teacher co-op charter school. It's a deliberately complicated bureaucratic process, involving a petition to the regional school board which, Jamie is warned, will likely reject the proposal for so much as a typo. Before Jamie even gets off the ground, the Teachers Association of Pennsylvania (a fictionalized teachers union) sends fliers spouting disinformation about the charter plan.
The dirty tricks don't stop there. A union executive (Holly Hunter) practically bribes Jamie with an offer to give Malia a scholarship to a private school. Before the movie's over, we see the union resort to blacklists and a smear campaign against Nona, while Malia's evil hag of a teacher retaliates on Malia herself.
To be fair, the movie serves up arguments supporting unions, both by Hunter's character and by Michael (Oscar Isaac), an enthusiastic music teacher who takes a shine to Jamie. But those pro-union arguments are words on the wind, hardly forceful enough to counter the union's bad behavior shown on screen. (The film also features a title card that touts how many jobs the movie's production and distribution created, but it's after the end credits so only the theater's clean-up crew is likely to see it.)
In "Won't Back Down," Barnz's bullhorn message tramples some usually good actors, forcing Gyllenhaal to be an artificially feisty crusader and Davis to play the noble martyr to the cause. These actors will, no doubt, survive to again give stellar performances unless those dirty union bosses pull their SAG cards.
'Won't Back Down'
Two mothers try to set up a charter school in a heavy-handed drama that comes off as a shrill anti-union screed.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens Friday, Sept. 28.
Rating • PG for thematic elements and language.
Running time • 121 minutes.