Mark Reviews Movies

Won't Back Down

WON'T BACK DOWN

2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Daniel Barnz

Cast: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Oscar Isaac, Holly Hunter, Rosie Perez, Emily Alyn Lind, Dante Brown, Lance Reddick, Ned Eisenberg, Marianne Jeane-Baptiste, Ving Rhames, Bill Nunn

MPAA Rating: PG (for thematic elements and language)

Running Time: 2:01

Release Date: 9/28/12


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Review by Mark Dujsik | September 27, 2012

Here is a movie that stands proudly on its soapbox to promote something. It's never quite clear what the protagonists' goal in Won't Back Down actually is, apart from some vague, feel-good sentiment about parents "taking control" of their children's school. The movie goes into great depth about the process for this change, which has been commonly dubbed a "parent trigger" and is called a "fail-safe" option here, because therein lies the seemingly impossible obstacle for the heroines to overcome. How, though, can we get behind their fight when we have only the fuzziest notion of what they are hoping to accomplish?

The impetus for the plot is one anyone with even the most basic awareness of public school system can support: Parts of the system are broken. This is undeniable. The screenplay by Brin Hill and director Daniel Barnz lays the blame almost solely at the feet at the local teachers union, which, in this scenario, protects a teacher who sits in her classroom and uses her cell phone throughout class and ensures that no teacher will make the effort help Jamie's (Maggie Gyllenhaal) daughter Malia (Emily Alyn Lind), who has dyslexia, because school ends at 3 p.m. and so does the teacher's workday.

That teachers unions are the primary reason for failing schools is unlikely (Specific policies, of course, are open to debate), but it gives Hill and Barnz a group with inherently paradoxical motivations and lines of reasoning (They exist to support teachers, which only indirectly benefits students, despite what most representatives say) to cast as the semi-villain. To its credit, the screenplay is relatively fair-minded in their portrayal of teachers within the movie's fictional union, while the union bosses are either heartless about children's education (or lack thereof) or regretful of their career (How the administrators of the school district itself get off nearly scot-free is a mystery).

Most of the teachers here are good, like Nona (Viola Davis), who joins Jamie's crusade to pull the parent trigger, and Michael (Oscar Isaac), who understands what Jamie is doing but also believes the union is a worthwhile and vital institution (Oddly, the movie makes a better argument for the union than it does for whatever it is Jamie and Nona are trying to do, given that—again—it's never made clear). At a local charter school, the principal (Ving Rhames) tells union official Evelyn (Holly Hunter) that it's possible to criticize the teachers union while still supporting it; his speech to the parents and children assembled for the lottery to fill the handful of openings in each grade at his school is the first of a string of Big Speeches from characters.

Malia's failure to "win" the lottery is the last straw for Jamie, who travels to the school district offices and learns of a state law that enables parents to take control of a failing school from the district. The parameters for enacting the option are lengthy: There must be support from fifty percent of parents and teachers, a comprehensive proposal for the school's curriculum, a review by the school board, and, finally, a vote by members of the board. The process could take years; Jamie wants it finalized so that the new school starts at the beginning of the next school year.

The movie's main conflicts center on the political debate raised by Jamie and Nona's push, with teachers skeptical of losing the security afforded to them by the union and the union engaging in a campaign to undermine their efforts. Evelyn's boss Arthur (Ned Eisenberg) is the epitome of every bad cliché of a corrupt and self-serving vulture, using a quote of questionable origins to sum up his own philosophy: "When school children start paying union dues, that's when I'll start representing the interests of school children." Evelyn, on the other hand, seems to genuinely care about the teachers, although her attempt to bribe Jamie with a scholarship to a prestigious private school doesn't help her cause.

Jamie struggles to balance two jobs and her attempts to get through the bureaucratic tape, along with starting a relationship with Michael, while Nona must deal with the recent separation from her husband (Lance Reddick) and her son Cody's (Dante Brown) cognitive disability (A revelation late in the movie that considers Nona's possible role in causing her son's problems is just cheap melodrama for its own sake). The characters are as nonspecific as the movie's central argument.

By the time the screenplay introduces the president of the school board (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a refreshing character who rejects all forms of rhetorical b.s. no matter which side it might come from, Won't Back Down has already piled it up pretty high. The discussion of school reform is a worthy and necessary one, but the movie and its reductive, indefinite case are not offering much of value to it.

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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