After a screening of “Won’t Back Down,” in which, I both cried and developed a sincere headache, I came up with only one conclusion about the film–a lot of people weren’t going to like it. On the heels of the Chicago Teacher’s strike, and the impending presidential election, the national temperature surrounding education reform is at minimum volatile, and releasing “Won’t Back Down,” in to the public discourse is only going to intensify things.
We find our two protagonists in Pittsburg where Jaimie Fitzpatrick, (Maggie Gyllenhaal) a young mother of a dyslexic child finds herself unable to afford catholic school tuition, forcing her to place her daughter in to the failing and rundown John Adams public school. There she meets Nona (Viola Davis) a teacher who has lost her spark for the classroom, and is struggling with her own sons lack of performance in school. After both women fail to win slots for their children in the coveted local charter school lottery, they team up to “takeover” the failing John Adams school. To do so, they must win the trust of the parents, gain the support of the teachers, and battle the intensely bureaucratic and sometimes venemous teacher’s union.
While the film tackles extremely intense policy issues, the story follows the conventional “Blind Side,” “Lean On Me” plot lines. There’s nothing new here; the emotional ploys are where you expect them, and at times the cheesy factor on screen is oozing from the sides. Still, Gyllenhaal gives an extremely impressive performance that will likely garner her an Academy Award. Davis plays the downtrodden and sometimes archetypal “strong Black woman,” Nona with tenderness and dimension–both ladies should be proud of their work.
But the lack of agency amongst the parents and teacher’s pre-Jaimie Fitzpatrick, a bartender/car-salesman/firestarter feels distant. The conveniently diverse student body also rang false, considering most failing public schools are disproportionately overflowing with Black and Brown children. The President of the teacher’s union was morally corrupt in a way that makes Donald Trump look like a really nice and solid guy. Though the film makes attempts at balance with a couple “it’s about the kids,” and “can’t we all get along,” speeches, it’s hard not to feel an anti-union undertone–and apparently teacher’s who have seen the film agree.
The controversy surrounding “Won’t Back Down,” continues to pick up momentum but the director and cast are not backing down. Insisting that the film is pro-children and not anti-union, the casts insists there is room to both question and support teacher’s unions on this very divisive topic. Gyllenhaal says, “There are adults on both sides of the issue about how to change it that have massive disagreements, I think if those disagreements keep us from making the changes we need to make for the children, than they’re inexcusable.” Viola Davis notes, the film is “provocative,” and elegantly points out, “discourse has always been the jumping off point for change.”
Overall the film succeeds in raising questions that will undoubtedly lead to increased conversation about education reform. It doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, and it doesn’t have to. Considering the current political babble dominating Cable TV right now is focused on Mitt Romney’s tan, a little bit of contentious dialogue about public education policy would be a welcome change.
The film is playing nationwide in theaters this weekend.