By Gary Murray

Starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Holly Hunter, Oscar Isaac, Rosie Perez and Ving Rhames 

Written by Brin Hill and Daniel Barnz

Directed by Daniel Barnz

Running time 121 min

MPAA Rating PG

Selig Film Rating Cable


Cinema stories about the education process are the backdrop from every type of film, from raunchy comedies to weepy melodramas.  Since most writers fall in love with the written word by studying as students, it would make sense that these wordsmiths would use classroom as the driver of entertainment.  The latest to take on the education system is Won’t Back Down.

Maggie Gyllenhaal is Jamie Fitzpatrick, a young single Pittsburg mother struggling with two jobs just to keep food on the table for her daughter Malia (Emily Alyn Lind).  The little girl is dyslexic and needs some extra help in school.   The first scene of the movie is of young Malia struggling to read aloud.

The new school she attends is one of the worst in the district and her teacher is a tenured educator who just doesn’t care about the kids or her job.   It is a secure paycheck and the teacher lets Jamie know that education stops at 3 PM.  Jamie is frustrated by how broken the system has become.

Viola Davis is Nona Alberts, a teacher at the school.  She is a burned-out academic who has lost the spark with her students.  She has a son who has some special needs and wants him to attend a charter school.  There are only three slots for the school and hundreds of applicants. At the lottery of open charter school spaces is where the two women meet.

Maggie decides that the best way to change the system is to use a little known law where the parents and teachers can ‘take over’ the school and turn it into a charter school.  This school would be independent of the unions, something that scares both the teachers and the administration.  The story of Won’t Back Down is of how determined parents and teachers can change a bad system.  It is also about the hurdles one has to overcome to achieve a goal.

If there is any reason to see Won’t Back Down, it is for the performance of Viola Davis.  In the last few years, this actress has gone from single lines to being nominated for the Oscar.  Here she plays a conflicted teacher who is at a crossroads in just about every aspect of her life.  Though the big reveal at the end feels a bit disingenuous, the journey to get to that point makes the film work on a certain level.

As much has Maggie Gyllenhaal has delivered some great performances over the years, this time out she seems lost in the role.  Simply put she is not believable as a mother who slings beer in a working class bar.  Any mother as dedicated as she appears to be in the film would not have such low paying jobs.      

Holly Hunter, Rosie Perez and Ving Rhames are all lauded performers who have small roles in Won’t Back Down.  With so many strong actors, one would expect the entire work to be stronger.  It almost feels like stunt casting.

Some of the strongest unions are those associated with Hollywood so it a little strange to see such an anti-union film.  Time and time again, the film shows that teachers are only there for tenure and a paycheck and not for the students.  This is agenda driven cinema and director Daniel Barnz used his loosely fact-based fiction with some mighty sharp teeth.  One can either agree or disagree with public sector unions and Oscar Isaac’s character does the defense of these groups, but it is very one-sided exercise. 

Politics aside, Won’t Back Down feels like a Lifetime television movie and not a major motion picture.  It is a film that will solidify opinions and not change many minds. 

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