By Bill Wine
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – “It’s possible,” says one character in Won’t Back Down, “to support your union and be critical of it at the same time.”
Thus does the script for this issue-driven drama remind viewers that these two viewpoints are not mutually exclusive. And we might say the same thing about the film itself; that is, we can be critical of it while still admiring its skill and moxie.
Won’t Back Down is a David-versus-Goliath tale about education, a controversial consideration of the crisis in the classroom and throughout the education system.
Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis play a single-mom bartender and a dedicated grade-school educator, respectively, who try to take over a failing, fictional inner-city school in Pittsburgh, Adams Elementary.
A fictional movie inspired by and based on actual events, as they say, this is essentially a buddy movie with an impassioned agenda about two frustrated, determined women taking on an entrenched bureaucracy in hopes of improving their children’s education and future.
Gyllenhaal is Jamie, a mother convinced that her dyslexic daughter is being denied the opportunity to learn in her bottom-ranked elementary school.
So she approaches Davis’s Nona, a teacher at the school, who spends most of her time outside the classroom teaching her own son because she feels the school is failing him – in both senses of the word – as well.
They team up in a feverish attempt to have the worst teachers removed from the school. But when they try to organize neighborhood parents as part of their cause, they encounter strong, angry resistance from not only other parents but from teachers and administrators as well.
Even Nona’s closest friend on the faculty, played by Rosie Perez, feels betrayed by her, even though she says at one point, “Adams is where education goes to die.”
Holly Hunter plays the teachers’ union rep who initially resorts to underhanded tactics to short-circuit the mothers’ plan but comes to question her own viewpoint, while Marianne Jean-Baptiste portrays the school board president who tries to provide some breathing room for their improbable plan.
The screenplay by director and co-writer (with Brin HIll) Daniel Barnz (Phoebe in Wonderland, Beastly) tackles the bureaucracy head-on but avoids the simplistic approach by acknowledging the complexity of the problem. Barnz keeps things intense and involving right from the get-go, then becomes a bit heavyhanded and melodramatic in the late going. However, this being a heart-on-its-sleeve work to begin with, the climax is only incrementally over the emotional top.
Like Davis Guggenheim’s similarly-themed documentary, Waiting for Superman, Won’t Back Down has encountered immediate resistance: the American Federation of Teachers has objected publicly to the film, seeing it as strongly anti-union.
Is it? Not exactly. But the controversy surrounding the film involves its place in the movement to privatize public education – the “school choice” issue. It’s the kind of movie designed to – and successfully at that – provoke strong reactions in one direction or the other from audience members. So it’s no surprise to learn that knee-jerk reactions to the film have quickly surfaced.
But the age-old debate about teachers’ unions protecting both good and bad teachers and whether it’s worth the price is articulated, and we find ourselves returning to the context suggested by the quote at the top of this review.
Gyllenhaal fully commits to her vibrant character, perhaps even to a blinders-wearing fault, but she surely makes you feel her desperation. And the ensemble cast – which includes five Oscar nominees (Gyllenhaal, Davis, Perez, Jean-Baptiste, and Oscar winner Hunter) – gives the film its much-needed lived-in look and sound as a discussion starter about an important subject well worth arguing about.
So we’ll educate 3 stars out of 4 for the pointedly provocative and uplifting education-reform drama, Won’t Back Down. Its flaws duly noted, this is still a worthwhile and appreciated movie, a stance from which the film’s proponents won’t back down.