The names Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal lend the new film Wont Back Down an undeserved illusion of prestige. The film, an unmasked anti-union, pro-charter attack, never manages to rise above its tired and deeply manipulative roots.
The flagship issue of the film, the batardization of the American education system, is one worthy of analysis, discussion, and protest. It’s also so hot-button of an issue that one would think a quality fiction narrative could emerge to shed light on the topic; Won't Back Down does not provide that narrative. Here we get over-simplified solutions, and a good vs. evil split so staunch and scathing it would make Chicago teachers blush. Won't Back Down turns teachers unions into so vicious a villain comic book bad guys look tame in comparison. Pro-union, anti-charter advocates have been protesting the film quite forcefully. It should also be noted that the financier behind the film, Walden Medea, is the same group behind the education film Waiting for Superman. With these ducks in a row, it is hard to reconcile the claims made by both Gyllenhaal and Davis in a post film Q&A that they don't perceive this to be an anti-union project.
The truth is, the film's politics would be a non-issue if the story held up, offered something new, or even presented the information in a non-pedantic manner. Instead, the film often feels like a thinly veiled lecture with a few loose characters mixed in.
The film revolves around single-mom Jamie Fitzpatrick (Gyllenhaal) who doesn't begin this story on a political mission. As Won't Back Down starts we are introduced to this hard-working blue collar woman whose only mission in life is to provide the best education for her young daughter Malia. Unfortunately Malia is a student at Adams Elementary, a grim, almost Roald Dahl-esque institution that has received a failing grade for nearly 20 years. As Malia's luck would have it, she also happens to have what appears to be the worst teacher in the world. A cartoonish ogre en par with Cameron Diaz's character in Bad Teacher ... but less of a vixen.
On the flip side is Nona Alberts (Viola Davis) a teacher at Adams Elementary who we understand was a knock-out teacher back in the day, but has been crushed into a near zombie-state thanks to her apathy with the school and some problems at home (a brewing divorce, a worrisome son).
Desperate times call for desperate measures and Jamie goes to the board of education to try and get her Malia into a better school. That plea is denied but what she does get is information about a law that permits parents and teachers to take over a school and make it better. Similar “parent trigger” laws do exist in California but no group has successfully been able to put them to practice. So, when the film claims to be “inspired by actual events,” what they really mean is “sort of.”
What ensues next is the classic David and Goliath story. Nona and Jamie join forces to put those parent trigger laws to use, and turn Adams Elementary into the school they always dreamed of. In the process, the plot even finds time for a love story between Jamie and a teacher named Michael (Oscar Isaac), whose ukelele playing in the classroom is seemingly irresistible. It should be noted that Michael is the only sympathetic character in the film to express pro-union sentiments.
Nona and Jamie embark upon a very energized plan to change Adams Elementary but the details of said plan are never really divulged. It appears the students will learn Shakespeare, and the lockers will be painted brighter colors, but that’s really all we learn. What emerges as the obstacle to this Utopian dream is the fictitious union the Teachers Asssociation of Pennsylvania or TAP. TAP is depicted as an evil empire, a corporate nemesis who stoops to character attacks on Nona all in an effort to keep Adams Elementary just as it is. The moral being, unions do not care about the children.
There are ways Won’t Back Down could have succeeded: stronger writing for instance, or the removal of Holly Hunter from the cast. And it should be said that the failings of the film are no fault of Gyllenhaal or Davis who both give committed and convincing performences. But Won’t Back Down gets lost in its schmaltzy narrative and backed up against the same problems unions and teachers face in the real world; no one can figure out how to fix these schools.