Special Photo: Fox Viola Davis, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Emily Ayln Lind are shown in a scene from "Won't Back Down."
Won't Back Down
2 and 1/2 out of 4 stars
In 2010, Walden Media released "Waiting for 'Superman,'" a documentary about the current sorry state of America's educational system. It was extremely well-intended, hit all of the major bullet points, yet eventually dragged itself down with some much-unneeded third-act emotional manipulation.
"Won't Back Down" is also produced by Walden and it addresses the condition of U.S. schools and also loses some of its luster due to its constant heartstring plucking. It gets a slightly better grade because it is a drama and not a documentary. The former can mess with emotions all they want; good or bad. Documentaries, by definition, should not.
Although it states during the opening credits that it is "inspired by real events," only the slightest bit of research after the viewing of "Won't Back Down" proved this statement to be, at best, a wish. It could be what might happen if someone ever actually took full advantage of the "Parent Trigger" law passed by the California legislature in 2010.
The short version of this law states that if the majority (51 percent) of the parents of children and an equal or greater amount of teachers at a given school want to overhaul it, they can jump through miles of red tape, fill out reams of paperwork, hope they get a hearing in their lifetime and maybe get an inkling someone in a position of power gives a damn. Keep in mind again, this is the short version. It's no wonder the law has yet to ever see the full light of day.
Going to all kinds of dramatic extremes when it really doesn't have to, the movie does partly succeed in its ability to relate to the average American parent with school-age children.
Single mother Jamie (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is holding down two low-paying jobs (receptionist and bartender at a dive) while living in a run-down section of Pittsburgh. After being pushed through the same school system years earlier and emerging as dyslexic, Jamie sees the same thing happening to her daughter, who attends the lowest-performing public school in the region.
For a different set of reasons, teacher Nona (Viola Davis) finds herself one of the few teachers at the same school not content with the low-aspiring status quo. Nona's son has no readily noticeable problems but is starting to show signs of strain because of his parents' recent separation. Though rightfully fearful of the backlash if the other teachers catch wind of her participation in ruffling feathers, Nona eventually gives in to Jamie's pleas to help her shake things up.
Again, Walden has all the best intentions here but everything about the film rings hollow. Jamie is a former hippie-chick/party-girl with a big heart and way too much misplaced enthusiasm. Nona is the exact opposite; rigid and pent-up with an unneeded dark back story that finally caves after it becomes clear the bulldog Jamie will never leave her alone.
Being sure they touch all of the dramatic-friction bases, director Daniel Barnz and co-writer Brin Hill include a romantic subplot including Jamie and Michael (Oscar Isaac), another teacher at the school who plays the ukulele and writes songs that works in his curriculum (perhaps history or social studies) in a fun, sing-a-long way. By far the most interesting character in the film, Michael kinda-sorta backs Jamie's cause but, like Nona, is fearful of upsetting the apple cart and losing the many job-secured perks afforded to him via his union membership.
For the last week, talking heads on both extremes of cable news outlets and their pegged guest commentators have passed judgment on the film and based on the content of what they've said, most of them haven't even seen it yet. They're offering their slanted opinions based on perception and their respective, intractable stances on this most divisive issue.
Simply based on worldwide rankings, the educational system in the US in on a swift downslide -- and that is a fact. Whether or not it is because of the long arm and deep political lobbying pockets of the teachers unions is not exactly clear, but is a strong indicator. If you want a quasi-example of something else that happened when unions got too much power and let it go their collective heads, just take a look at the U.S. automobile industry and the UAW in the '70s. That was the decade when the U.S. forever relinquished its global domination over to Asia and Europe. The same exact thing is happening right now in the world's schools.
"Won't Back Down" isn't a great movie but it's a good start. Just do the math. (Fox)