Full Disclosure: My wife’s an elementary educator who currently works in a state that’s free of teachers’ unions. But over the course of her career, she has worked for -- and belonged to – such organizations. She appreciated the fact that they instituted tenures, protected wage rates, fought for certain employment rights and generally served the best interests of each individual educator. But she also witnessed unions protecting veteran teachers who no longer had any business being in the classroom, and she understood the frustrations of parents who choked on union-distributed red tape as they sought the best schooling for their children. In short, my wife’s the choir to which Won’t Back Down preaches.
Full Disclosure, Part Two: I’m a film critic saddled with a coal-black, cynical heart that’s two sizes too small. I possess a lower-than-average tolerance for agenda-driven tearjerkers that clumsily push an audience’s buttons with contrived scenarios, tin-ear dialogue, and manipulative swells of an overbearing film score. When movies like that begin to preach to their choirs, I plug my thumbs in my ears and pray for the end credits.
Won’t Back Down easily could have been that type of movie, and likely would have descended to such troubling levels of pap if not for a handful of powerful performances and the unbridled enthusiasm of director Daniel Barnz. During a recent interview, Barnz rattled off for me the various members of his immediate family who make a living in school systems around the country. His passion for, and experience with, America’s public system infuses Won’t Back Down with a can-do attitude that’s matched in tone by his feisty lead actors, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis.
The former plays Jamie Fitzpatrick, a single mother from a broken-down, blue-collar neighborhood outside of Pittsburgh who barely holds down multiple menial jobs, can’t afford to send her daughter to a decent school, yet is flabbergasted by the lack of actual teaching going on in the overcrowded classroom. Things aren’t much better across the hallway, where veteran instructor Nona Alberts’ (Davis) passion for teaching has been extinguished by the strict regulations suffocating classroom teachers. At home, her estranged husband (Lance Reddick) also refuses to help raise their special-needs child alone. Both women hope enrollment in an exclusive, student-first private school is the light at the end of the tunnel they’ve been seeking for their children.
In many ways, Won’t Back Down is the fictional interpretation of Davis Guggenheim’s Waiting for “Superman”, meant for audiences who have no interest in fact-driven documentaries. A lottery-drawing scene signaling admission into the “good” school, for example, is pulled straight out of Guggenheim’s doc. And Down trots out many of the hard truths and depressing stats “Superman” peddled, but puts prettier faces on the education-system quandaries addressed in both films.
It’s the cast, though, that rescues Won’t Back Down from TV-movie-of-the-week-dom. Gyllenhaal’s never been scrappier, and there’s a maternal warmth to Jamie that likely stems the actress’s own experience of motherhood. This material’s now in Gyllenhaal’s wheelhouse, and she understands how to play parental concern in ways she might not have been able to five years ago. Davis, always a pro, also infuses her orthodox character with enough hope to penetrate through the world-weariness of the situations facing these women fighting against the oppressive unions for the right to form their own charter school.
Barnz actually weighs the arguments for and against union influence, and lends his leads enough support on both sides of the fight to keep Down on its feet. Oscar Isaac charms Davis’ teachers’ lounge as the energetic new instructor able to connect with the kids in his class. Holly Hunter brings an unexpected humanity to the role of a union executive caught up in Jamie and Nona’s fight. Rosie Perez and Ving Rhames shine in small supporting roles, elevating the material. And the ending, while telegraphed and wholly predictable, tugged at the right heartstrings.
Grading on a curve, Won’t Back Down brings home a C+ … a passing mark, sure, but not exactly one you’re eager to hang up on the refrigerator.