Film Review – Won’t Back Down
Most of us can probably recall at least one teacher in our lives who made some sort of impact on us during our journey to adulthood. A good teacher can open a student’s eyes to the world around them and prepare them for what awaits outside school grounds. An ideal educational system helps to mold our future leaders, or, at the very least, keep them from getting into too much trouble. Is this too much to expect outside of some highfalutin’ private school? Doesn’t EVERY child deserve such an opportunity?
Won’t Back Down stars Maggie Gyllenhaal as a determined single mother intent on bettering her dyslexic daughter’s education. The class to which her daughter’s been assigned is headed by a tenured educator more interested in playing with her iPhone than teaching that day’s curriculum. Across the hall is another class, headed by Viola Davis, who also seems dispirited despite occasional glimpses of a previous happier life. In fact, the entire school staff seems to have accepted that they’ll make little to no difference in these students’ lives. A general malaise hovers over the rundown teachers’ lounge. How representative this is of actual fledgling inner city schools isn’t something I can speak on, but the movie’s handling of the subject is so overt and heavy-handed, it calls into question just how true the “actual events” it claims to be inspired by actually are.
Gyllenhaal’s Jamie juggles two low-paying jobs just to make ends meet but spends every free moment trying to uproot her daughter from the class and into one more equipped to deal with her disability. When this proves unsuccessful, she lays her hopes on a charter school lottery where she first encounters Nona (Davis), herself hoping to enlist her young son. After some tearful pleading, Jamie convinces Nona to join forces with her. (“Do you want to start a school with me?”)
Once their grassroots efforts are exposed, Nona’s fellow teachers become resentful and the movie ungracefully sets its sights on the corruptness of teacher unions. In the hands of a more assured director, this could have proved both interesting and powerful, but Daniel Barnz (Beastly) makes the opposing side’s view so cartoonish and over-the-top it brinks on being outright laughable.
Having said all that, boy is Viola Davis a star. She brings a solemnness and vulnerability to her role that is undeniably powerful. The strained relationship between her son and recently distant husband hits all of the right notes, even if the eventual reveal of how they arrived there feels decidedly half-baked. Quite frankly, I found this movie to be beneath Viola Davis and feel they were damn lucky to net her. Every time the material takes a turn towards the unbearable, there she is to hold our hand and assure us it’ll all be okay. While Gyllenhaal manages to squeak out a couple of nice moments, she never comes anywhere near the conviction on display from Davis.
Unnecessary subplots and squandered potential (Ving Rhames appears in exactly one scene) abound as the film limps its way through its two-hour run time. It all culminates with a city hearing so trite and predictable in its execution that I can’t help but shake my head. Even with all its missteps, though, Won’t Back Down seems to have its heart in the right place. If it weren’t so intent on being a “message” movie, it could have had a shot at at least being a good one.
Final Grade: C-