Film Review: Won't Back Down

Well-done, well-meaning but predictable, by-the-familiar-numbers drama about two working single mothers who go activist to buck the public-school bureaucracy and create a better learning institution for their own and other urban kids.

Inspired by actual events and featuring activist working-class women a la Erin Brockovich and Norma Rae on the barricades for social reform, Won’t Back Down depicts a fight for better schools and liberation from union and bureaucratic strangleholds. The film is engaging, moves nicely, and a feisty Maggie Gyllenhaal and always superb Viola Davis make for a highly watchable pair of urban social warriors.

While most films set in schools have focused on student-teacher relationships (To Sir With Love, Rebel Without a Cause and Monsieur Lazhar, among so many), Won’t Back Down pits parents against a broken-down system.

Jamie (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a single mom juggling jobs as a receptionist and bartender while caring for her eight-year-old dyslectic daughter Malia (Emily Alyn Lind, suggesting a Fanning-like future in movies). Appalled at the way the educational system is treating Malia and hearing about an existing but little-used, bureaucratically bedeviled program designed to help citizens create alternate schools, Jamie embarks on a mission to change the failed, tradition-bound, union-crippled Adams elementary school her daughter attends. She manages with some difficulty to recruit Nona (Viola Davis), one of the school’s best teachers, to her cause and the two embrace the challenge of learning how the program works.

Along the way to a victory that everything about the film signals (the upbeat tone, the rousing music, the importance of the cause), the two encounter what seem like insurmountable obstacles (resistance from both teachers and parents, mountains of paperwork, an impossibly intractable school board, an all-powerful union opposed to such independent institutions, impossible time constraints that may require years to file their petition, the power of tradition itself that forever fights change). All while continuing to earn their livings, the two women must raise awareness of the new school they are proposing. They hold fairs, go door-to-door to homes, and distribute handouts and t-shirts describing their cause. After all, this is America where “In Marketing We Trust.”

Colleagues like fellow teachers Breena (Rosie Perez) and Michael (Oscar Isaac) resist and waffle. Michael captivates both his students, with his skill at the ukelele and progressive teaching methods, and Maggie, with whom he becomes romantically involved. But Michael, like others, can’t shake his pro-union sentiments.

Also on the personal front, Nona, recently separated from her husband, also knows the pain of having a youngster in an underperforming school as son Cody (Dante Brown) has not responded well to his parents’ break-up.

And there are formidable adversaries along the way to that all-important hearing of their petition in front of the school board. A major nuisance is Evelyn (Holly Hunter), a kind of female “corporate suit” in old-line school administration who smells a threat when she sees one in Maggie. Evelyn tries a bribe, tempting Maggie to back off from her efforts by promising a scholarship for daughter Malia to an exclusive Pittsburgh school.
Another foe is entrenched union loudmouth Arthur (Ned Eisenberg), a type familiar to those who watch their local news. At least board of education member Olivia (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) is on hand to lend a powerful voice of reason to the opposing sides.

Shot in Pittsburgh, the film makes good use of the city’s working-class neighborhoods and obsession with sports. But the palette is too literal: Early scenes depicting the dire situation at the Adams School, its students and the dilemmas of the two mothers drown in faded shades of grey, blue and plum. Colors cheerfully brighten as Maggie and Nona’s fight for reform picks up steam. Importantly, Won’t Back Down does give viewers what they want to see in terms of theme, performances and expectations.