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Won't Back Down

2012 | 121 min | PG | 2.39:1

Won't Back Down


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Theatrical release date

 28 September, 2012
 25 January, 2013

Country of origin

 United States

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Won't Back Down Preview  

 / 10
Preview by Brian Orndorf, September 28, 2012

“Won’t Back Down” is such an exaggerated attempt to shed light on the failures of the public school system, it might have you rooting for illiteracy to win in the end. Nuance and some type of dramatic balance is punted away right at the top of the feature, making the next two hours a preachy, hokey bore boosted by a few sublimely devoted performances. Education is a critical topic worth a cinematic inspection, but thespian passion and good intentions do not carry a movie alone. A production like this demands a brain as big as its heart, helping viewers to understand complexity when dealing with the youth of the nation. “Won’t Back Down” merely uncorks a box of Crayons and broadly colors over the issues at hand, doing a disservice to the parents, students, and teachers who struggle with this impasse on a daily basis.

Frustrated with teachers who continually disregard the needs of her dyslexic daughter Malia (Emily Alyn Lind), Jamie (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is fed up with Adams Elementary, stunned that so many in the community are tolerant of a school that fails its students. Inspired by a missed opportunity to join a charter school, Jamie forms a plan to take control of Adams, turning its fortunes around through an active reimagining of its staff and educational goals. Coxing third grade teacher Nona (Viola Davis) to join the revolution, Jamie sets out to instigate change, only to find pressure applied by the local teacher union, with representative Evelyn (Holly Hunter) attempting to carry out her job while her bosses insist on underhanded techniques of character assassination to squash the revolution. With her own child facing a rough academic future, Nona steels herself for the fight, while Jamie finds romance with teacher Michael (Oscar Isaac), an educator who believes in the value of unions but can’t deny the potential of Jamie’s dream school.

“Won’t Back Down” isn’t out to establish a measured discussion on the erosion of the American educational system, it’s declaring war, though a true enemy remains unclear throughout the picture. Building on the bloated sense of public importance found in the documentary “Waiting for Superman,” the feature doesn’t paint a particularly rounded portrait of the public school structure, preferring to hang on specific examples of neglect, including one teacher introduced early in the movie buried in online shopping and text messaging as Malia struggles to read the chalkboard. Unrealistic? No, but it’s certainly cheapening the true dilemma of tenured educators who’ve shed concern due to union cushioning. The same teacher is shown later in the film depriving Malia of a bathroom break, forcing to the girl to wet herself in front of the class. At this point, “Won’t Back Down” is scripting villains for Jamie and Nona to topple, and that’s an awful way to communicate the crisis to an audience, perverting a troubling wall of bureaucracy and complacency into crude cinematic antagonism, begging viewers to jeer and move along, abandoning an honest assessment of an uninspired teacher failing at her job.

Director/co-writer Daniel Barnz (who helmed last year’s abysmal “Beastly”) shows little delicacy with “Won’t Back Down,” accepting a crown of nobility he hasn’t earned. It’s a film of primary colors, afraid to break down issues into manageable sizes for study, instead treating the battle between charter school supporters and pro-union types as a western, with color coding in the finale to help identify the heroes and villains. Organized labor is unabashedly knocked for its deceptive practices and staunch defense of the status quo, attempting to buy off Jamie with an opportunity to place Malia in a private school, while the teachers who side with Nona are threatened with blacklisting. Frankly, I’d love to understand the headspace of the unions as they’re faced with failing schools, but there’s no time for that in “Won’t Back Down.” Besides, an attempt to understand the opposition would encourage the audience to think, and Barnz doesn’t want any piece of that nonsense.

Davis’s performance as Nona deserves a better feature. Her conviction and emotional availability are extraordinary to watch, helping to understand the character’s difficulties, no matter how overblown they become. And with Davis locked in firm educator mode, I’d rather watch her teach six hours of the third grade than endure ten more minutes of “Won’t Back Down.” Gyllenhaal also creates a rich sense of working-class personality, though she’s stuck with a bland cheerleader role that often makes Jamie unappealing. With Hunter and Marianne Jean-Baptiste (here as a feisty school board member) in the mix, the movie has enormous talent but shabby material, wasting the time of devoted performers in dire need of thoughtful screenwriting.

This quandary of education and the failure of a disengaged, red-tape-tied system is one aching for a brutally honest, finely tuned screen inspection. Transforming the situation into professional wrestling does a great injustice to the children and their fragile future. Change is necessary, and attention should be paid to the potential of school reform, but a movie as flimsy as “Won’t Back Down” won’t help the discussion. In fact, its toxic one-sidedness might actually prevent some from seeking out an intelligent look at the issue.

Starring: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Oscar Isaac, Holly Hunter, Rosie Pérez, Emily Alyn Lind
Director: Daniel Barnz

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