Matt Pais, @mattpais
RedEye movie critic
September 27, 2012
** (out of four)
“Inspired by actual events,” reads the opening of “Won't Back Down,” which feels inspired but not by actual events. Armed only with rah-rah determination, this drama presents the troubled school system merely as a wall waiting to meet its destruction at the hands of motivated parents and fearless teachers. Rise up, everyone, and be the self-directed change Gandhi preached!
If only. With or without the recent CPS teachers strike in the back of your mind, it's hard to see “Won't Back Down” as anything but the refreshing passion of a dedicated few standing up to bureaucracy in highly cinematic fashion. In a supposedly drug- and gang-infested Pittsburgh neighborhood containing no evident violence or homelessness, single mom Jamie (Maggie Gyllenhaal) refuses to sit idly by as her 8-year-old daughter Malia (Emily Alyn Lind) receives lessons from a teacher who pays more attention to her cellphone than to students. One teacher (Rosie Perez) says Adams Elementary is “where education goes to die.” That teacher's colleague, Nona (Viola Davis), tries and fails to get her son into a charter school, where she hopes he'd have more help with his possible learning disability.
Once Jamie hears about a “fail-safe law” empowering people to overthrow a school with the necessary petitions and group effort, Jamie and Nona team up to remind those fussy principals, unmotivated teachers and close-minded union advocates why people are supposed to get into education in the first place: the children.
Documentarian Davis Guggenheim couldn't fully digest the issues plaguing American schools in “Waiting for Superman,” and “Down” director/co-writer Daniel Barnz (“Beastly”) isn't a better person for the job. The movie's loaded with melodramatic conflicts and needless romantic subplots. That includes Jamie flirting with a teacher, winningly played by Oscar Isaac, and Nona's ex-husband (Lance Reddick) texting her, “This is not working. We need to talk.”As
Jamie, Gyllenhaal's got moxie, emphasizing the salesmanship necessary to gather support for a cause. Davis, robbed of her Oscar for “The Help,” always delivers. The film's completely detached, however, from financial issues and the complexities regarding unions and tenure. Nona claiming, “Change a school, you change a neighborhood,” also should be filed under both “Long-term plans” and “Easier said than done.”
Certainly “Won't Back Down” captures the frustration of a system that sometimes stands in the way of progress. Viewers of all ages can get behind the message to take matters into your own hands when possible. Personally I'd like to start a petition against movies with such transparent titles as “This movie will inspire you!” I'm not saying we need stories called “Honorable Failure” or “You'll Get 'Em Next Time,” but anyone who's fought hard and won knows victory's a lot sweeter when you don't know the outcome in advance.
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