Won’t Back Down
Every few years, an inspirational film about education comes along, invariably based on (or at least "inspired by") true events, and holding out hope for a better way of doing things. Think "Stand and Deliver." Think "Freedom Writers."
Now think "Won't Back Down," in which Maggie Gyllenhaal dons a winning (sometimes desperate) smile for the role of Jamie Fitzpatrick. Jamie is a single mother living in a grungy apartment with her young daughter Malia (Emily Alyn Lind) and holding down two jobs in a bid to pay the bills.
As if life weren't hard enough, Malia is struggling in school, both because she's dyslexic and because she's easy pickings for the class bully. The teacher, Deborah (Nancy Bach), a deeply indifferent and occasionally sadistic amalgam of every teacher you ever loathed, barely even tries to keep the class in order, much less impart any knowledge; she's too busy shopping online and texting her friends. Then again, Deborah isn't really there to instruct anybody. She's there to waste time and draw a paycheck until retirement, at which time she will move on to wasting time and drawing a pension. (Bach is so good in the role that you feel sorry for her; no one likes a villain, especially when the villain is portrayed with such spiky brio as Bach brings to the role.)
It's Deborah and instructors like her who frustrate the likes of Nona Alberts (Viola Davis), the teacher across the hall into whose class Jamie would rather see Malia placed. But the school's principal (Bill Nunn) refuses to allow the transfer, citing legal limits on class sizes. (He's all too happy to ignore other legalities, such as the attendance records he forces his staff to forge.) Nona has a beef of her own with the educational system; her own son, Cody (Dante Brown), attends a better school, where he's been relegated to a remedial class because he can't keep up academically. Nona's brand of at-home tutoring, a blend of fretting and nagging, only increases the boy's misery, and there's some hint that her inability to deal with Cody's lack of achievement is an underlying cause of her unraveling marriage to husband Charles (Lance Reddick).
Jamie, desperate to get her daughter a better education, learns of a "failsafe" law that allows parents and interested teachers to "take over" failing schools. Together with Nona and a hunky young single teacher named Mike (Oscar Isaac), Jamie sets about organizing just such a takeover effort, and finds herself facing off with an army of the bored, the paralyzed, the listless, and the ruthless... in short, the teachers' union, which stoops to every and any level to derail the takeover.
This is one of those feel-good movies that doesn't necessarily feel good so much as contrived. Like a jigsaw puzzle with jumbo pieces, its every element feels exaggerated and obvious. If we have a wastoid like Deborah in one classroom, why then of course we have Nona one room over. If we have teacher's union president Arthur Gould (Ned Eisenberg) playing hardball to defame and discredit Jamie and Nona, we must also have Mike, who is both a ready-made romantic interest for Jamie (and what single mother in a Hollywood production doesn't really just need a handsome guy to keep her going?) and a foil for the pro-union crowd. Falling in between the two is the oddly named Evelyn Riske, played by Holly Hunter, who is the best part of the movie, and who takes the dueling impulses to love and to hate unions and almost makes it work. Evelyn is fundamentally compromised: She remembers what it was like to live in a small factory town with no labor representation. But she also sees what Arthur does not: That the union has become so involved in protecting and expanding workers' rights and privileges that it's lost sight of the work itself. That blindness has only become more acute in the wake of the post-2010 elections and attacks on unions from conservative politicians.
It's this particular tension, between the attacks on unions from the political right and the undeniable abuses of power of which unions are capable, that sucks the drama out of the film. Who are we rooting for? Again and again, Jamie speaks to the putative reason for the existence of our school system--the children who sit in its classrooms. It's the kids we should be rooting for, and Jamie is their champion. The film loses the plot by allowing the debate over unions to dominate for too much of the time. Jamie and Nona, meantime, are reduced almost to the level of the bobble heads they collect as a way of marking how much support they've gained from the school's teaching staff. By the time we learn of a tragic secret from Nona's past, it feels just like what it is: One more glossy, cut-to-fit jumbo puzzle piece created and positioned to snap neatly into place.
The issue of education is a knotty, thorny one. So is the issue of the needs and rights of working people, who rely on unions to protect them from the predations of those who would otherwise exploit them (and increasingly do). One need not ask this film to back down from anything; rather, what the movie needs to do is step back and chose which battle it wishes to fight.