REVIEW: Maggie Gyllenhaal Is Shrill Heroine In School-Reform Propaganda Film, Won't Back Down
There are few movies that make teaching look more quietly unappealing than Won't Back Down, which is quite an achievement, given its naked aims to inspire. The film, directed by Daniel Barnz (Beastly), who also co-wrote the screenplay with Brin Hill, doesn't by any means hate teachers — it merely holds them to impossible, wild-eyed standards. Inside every classroom instructor, it posits, is a Stand and Deliver-worthy saint who's merely being kept down by those pesky teachers union regulations that are crushing spirits and encouraging them not to try. It's the system that's preventing them from handing out their home numbers so students can call for help. It's the system that's holding them back from staying after school to work with anyone who needs it, and from loving their students even more than the kids' parents do. The film is all for teaching as a calling. What it doesn't do is offer it the dignity of also being a job.
Like the trio of recent documentaries, The Cartel, The Lottery and heavy-hitter Waiting for "Superman" (with which Won't Back Down shares a funder, Phil Anschutz's Walden Media), Barnz's film trudges into the bi-partisan mire of education reform and insists with zealous fervor that the unions are the problem for our failing public schools. Won't Back Down isn't a doc, it's a drama with the barest pretense of being anything more than a vehicle for getting its message across. And, as a piece of propaganda, the phoniness of its faux populist tone makes it maddening to sit through, regardless of how you feel about its stance on schools.
Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Jamie Fitzpatrick, a single mom in Pittsburgh, PA who leads the charge against the lousy public school where her daughter Malia (Emily Alyn Lind) has ended up after private-school tuition ceased to become an option. Jamie is so scrappy and spunky she might as well have the words tattooed across her chest instead of the birds inked there as symbols of her working class authenticity. Gyllenhaal is a talented, surprising actress who has played some interesting variations on mother characters in the past few years, but her Jamie is a shrill heroine whose fierce efforts on behalf of her daughter keep verging into bullying entitlement. She wants Malia transferred to a class run by the better if dispirited Nona Alberts (a disruptively anguished Viola Davis), and when told it's full, suggests switching out another kid who's presumably less important.
The fact that Jamie spends so much time at her receptionist day job on personal calls is meant to be a sign of her feistiness, though, of course, one of the first damning details we get about Malia's uncaring teacher is that she's sneaking texts in class.
Jamie enlists the initially reluctant Nona in her cause, to take over the school using the "fail safe" law, based on the real "parent trigger" law current being battled over in a case in Adelanto, CA. If enough parents and teachers sign their support and the pair can navigate the labyrinthine bureaucracy, Jamie and Nona will be able to force a vote from the school board and set up their school as a charter institution. As soon as the local teachers union, lead by Evelyn Riske (Holly Hunter), hears about this, they start sending out misleading pamphlets to the parents, trying to buy off Jamie with a scholarship for her daughter, slandering Nona and getting her suspended from work in the name of protecting labor.
Won't Back Down makes the sporadic gesture toward balance — "When did Norma Rae get to be the bad guy?" wonders Evelyn, and Michael (Oscar Isaac), the idealistic Teach for America alum who becomes Jamie's beau, describes his unease with his girlfriend's rhetoric. But the primary agenda is overwhelming: it's teachers who can and should be held responsible for countering the effects of environment, poverty and homelife on the children in their classroom. And God forbid they be so soulless as to seek out job security or talk about salaries, as Nona's sneering addressing of the topic to her fellow teachers at a meeting makes clear.
But Won't Back Down's worst transgression isn't the insurmountable burden it places upon the profession of teaching but rather the way in which it brushes over the solution its characters pursue. What does it mean to "take over the school"? If it's transformation into a charter school they're pursuing, why is the process never discussed? What will it do better that can't already be done in the current structure?
The question of who'll run the school, and the fact that charter schools are by no means guaranteed to be more successful than public ones (and prone to failure themselves) is tossed to the side, the happy ending assumed. Won't Back Down pretends to be about teachers and parents coming together on behalf of their children, but it's really around to quietly, troublingly boost for-profit education without ever explaining its benefits and costs.
Follow Alison Willmore on Twitter.
Follow Movieline on Twitter.