Like Norma Rae and Erin Brockovich, the new film Won’t Back Down is an inspirational movie about a working-class woman who struggles against a powerful elite to make a significant social change.
There are a few major differences though. The character of the mom, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, who joins forces with a disillusioned Pittsburgh school teacher (Viola Davis) to save their failing school, is not a real person, though the film was “inspired by actual events.”
More significantly, the villains here aren’t bean-counting corporate fat cats, but teachers’ unions and school-board members. Dramatically, people who wear chalk-dusted jackets and carry bag lunches don’t make for the most exciting villains. Politically, it’s startling to see the liberal inspirational drama hijacked to promote a pet conservative cause. Won’t Back Down, which has had advance screenings as part of a word-of-mouth promotional campaign, has already drawn protests from educators, including the American Federation of Teachers.
The movie is produced by Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz’s Walden Media, the company that also helped produce Davis Guggenheim’s pro-charter-schools documentary Waiting for Superman in 2010. The “actual events” refers to the “parent trigger” legal cases, in which a majority of parents and teachers can legally oust the administration of a poorly performing public school and take it over as a charter operation. Proponents say charter schools ensure parental input and teacher accountability. Critics argue that the political right’s enthusiasm for charter schools is more about busting teachers’ unions than improving the quality of education.
Don’t count on Won’t Back Down to provide much enlightenment on the issue. Director and co-writer Daniel Barnz (Beastly, Phoebe in Wonderland) has created a drama that’s as intellectually crude as it is emotionally calculated. At the outset, the movie presents us with a character who is intended to embody all that is wrong with the education system, a sullen, overweight second-grade teacher named Deborah (Nancy Bach) at Adams Elementary School. Deborah shops online during class, sneers at kids who struggle academically and leaves school promptly at 3 p.m. When two-job single mom Jamie Fitzpatrick (Gyllenhaal) asks for help for her dyslexic daughter Malia (Emily Alyn Lind), the lazy teacher shrugs her off: Union rules say she doesn’t have to care. The school’s corrupt principal is no more help.
A desperate Jamie enters Malia’s name into a lottery for the wonderful-sounding Rosa Parks Charter School. Before the names are announced, the school’s inspiring principal (Ving Rhames) offers the applicants a rousing take-back-education speech. Although Malia doesn’t win a spot, Jamie sees another Adams Elementary teacher, Nona Alberts (Davis), at the same meeting. The teacher’s trying to get her son, who is learning-impaired, into a better school as well.
After doing some research, she approaches Nona, and asks her like a child asking another to play: “Do you want to start a school together?”
Both actors have proved elsewhere they’re far better than this hokey blend of melodrama and political cartoon. Gyllenhaal, who dresses in rock ’n’ roll sexy clothes and spins with enthusiasm, is our surrogate Erin Brockovich here, but her perkiness gets tiresome. Davis gets a little more to chew on, as she becomes Norma Rae in reverse: Initially a dignified sufferer in the education factory, she becomes an empowered political firebrand.
Meanwhile, Jamie and Nona’s crusades awaken fresh allies to forgotten ideals. Jamie has to contend with a crisp union soldier (Holly Hunter in a Nancy Reagan wig) who tries to follow orders from her zealous overseers until she can’t live with herself any more. In parallel scenes, Nona bonds with a burned-out, soon-to-retire, school-board chair (a fine turn from Marianne Jean-Baptiste) and helps the woman reignite her love of education. Also joining the Charter School crusade is a doe-eyed male teacher, Michael (Oscar Isaac), who provides Jamie with a romantic interest, as well as offering some token pro-union objections before he sees the light.
As a movie trying to make the case for parental management of the education process, Won’t Back Down, doesn’t make an entirely convincing case. Jamie checks out Michael’s backside as she sees him working the classroom, and instantly knows he’s a great teacher. Why? Because he makes lessons fun by getting the kids to line dance with him as he plays the ukulele. Clearly, it will only be a short few steps before America claims its place at the forefront of education, at least in all subjects related to ukulele-accompanied line dancing.