A plucky mom and wary teacher band together to save their school in Won’t Back Down, a movie about the parent-trigger concept for school improvements.
Shorthand: As the movie describes it, when a school is failing, parent-trigger laws give some combination of parents and teachers the right and ability to take over the school, toss out staff and curriculum and reopen the school with new leadership (and, from what I can tell from various media reports, usually as a charter school). Won’t Back Down is very much in favor.
Single mom Jamie (Maggie Gyllenhaal, playing the role with crazy wide-awake eyes, like she’s just had three shots of espresso with a Red Bull chaser) is worried about her daughter Malia (Emily Alyn Lind), who is having a hard time in school. She’s bright but dyslexic. At her previous school, a private school, the teacher was able to stay after school to help her. At Adams School — a particularly lousy school in a lousy Pittsburgh neighborhood — Malia’s checked-out teacher Deborah (Nancy Bach) barely teaches during class and certainly has no intention of doing anything for students afterward. Jamie tries desperately to get her daughter back in the private school (which she can’t really afford) and then when that doesn’t work she tries to get the principal to move Malia to the other class at her grade level and then when that doesn’t work she tries to get her a spot at a popular charter school.
At the lottery for the charter school Jamie runs in to Nona (Viola Davis), the teacher for that other class at Malia’s grade level. Nona is having her own education woes — she’s trying to get her son Cody (Dante Brown) into a school that can help him with his own learning difficulties. Jamie begs Nona to try to get Malia in her class and yells at her when she seems to be putting Jamie off. Jamie takes her case for some kind of help for Malia to the school district and is told by the receptionist (for whom Jamie, a good networker, buys coffee) about how parents can take over a failing school. The receptionist doesn’t have any hope for such a thing working, but the idea energizes Jamie. Having seen Nona in desperate mom, not teacher, mode, Jamie thinks she has a kindred spirit and tries to convince Nona to help her take over the school. For Nona, however, the matter isn’t just a case of attempting school improvement. A successful parent takeover would mean the teachers are laid off and hired on without a union. Even sympathetic teachers balk at the uncertainty of working without a union contract.
So is this how it’s going to be, movies? Recent movies have focused on the war on Christmas, Obama’s secret socialist desires, and now the evils of teachers’ unions — is political messaging the new “turn 1960s TV shows into movies”? Did you see Nicole Kidman’s Bewitched? Such gimmicks do not always make for an entertaining afternoon at the theater.
I care about education, I care about the kind of schools my kids attend, I care about improving the schools all kids attend. I also paid $8 plus, what, like $10 for peanut M&Ms and a drink or whatever it is now so cut me a break, charter school proponents. Maybe give me a funny animated short or a 10-minute Channing Tatum dance number, just to keep me from feeling like I’m watching a movie adaptation of the op-ed page.
Won’t Back Down exhausts you with its determination to Make You Agree with the idea of a parent take over. Which, fine, convince me but can’t you do it with more complexity or at least more deftness? I don’t need this to be The Wire, but something closer to The West Wing (which could be preachy about its political ideology but still, on occasion, an enjoyable bit of entertainment) would have been preferable to the all-tell, no-show approach taken here.
What Won’t Back Down does have going for it is Viola Davis. Whether she’s playing a put-upon housekeeper or a CIA director or an editor for, like, five seconds in Eat Pray Love, Davis is the movie equivalent of bacon — she makes everything at least 100 percent better. This movie without Davis would have been, I suspect, unbearable. Just her expression while listening to her husband talk at a dinner with his work colleagues tells you everything you need to know about their marriage. I realized during this movie that I won’t just watch Davis in practically anything, I’ll also like her in anything. She might not save Won’t Back Down, but she makes this political flyer stuck in your windshield a lot easier to watch. C
Rated PG for thematic elements and language. Directed by Daniel Barnz and written by Daniel Barnz and Brin Hill, Won’t Back Down is two hours and one minute long and distributed by 20th Century Fox.