One person can make a difference. It's cliché and difficult to believe most days, but then you get the awe-inspiring example of someone doing just that. Won't Back Down
is one of those stories, beginning with the determination of one woman that turned into the voices of hundreds demanding better education for their children.
Jamie (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a single mom working two jobs to get by. She wants the best for her daughter, Malia (Emily Alyn Lind), but can no longer afford the private school that was best able to manage her dyslexia. Now Malia is drowning in the public system, weighed down by an indifferent teacher and ignorant students. But not all the teachers at Adams are ambivalent. Jamie sees the spark of an educator who could do more if given the opportunity when she meets Nona (Viola Davis). So she finds a way to give her that chance. With enough signatures and approval of the school board, they can take over the school and run it in the best interests of the students – only the kids’ welfare is not high on everyone’s priority list.
This film is a cross between Erin Brockovich
and Dangerous Minds
. The latter influence is evident in the dire portrayal of the classroom, in which students fight, sleep and play video games. They're virtually on permanent recess. The difference is they are easier to turn around because they are younger. There is even a scene in which the protagonist is stonewalled because of a minor oversight that is reminiscent of Emilio's failure to knock. The similarity to the first title is in the protagonists' need to lobby for support and signatures, going door-to-door pleading their case. Unfortunately it lacks a key element of both these movies: passion. Their cause is just, but the story fails to capture the spirit of the movement.
In addition to looking at the public school system, it's also an exploration of the pros and cons of unions. Good teachers often require their protection to continue doing what's right. But bad teachers take advantage of the same protection, avoiding dismissal in spite of their incompetence. Examples of both are represented in the movie, and there is a valid and thoughtful debate about the best choice. Much of the talk is divided between the children's well being and the union's duties. There is a telling line by a top union representative, quoting American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Albert Shanker: "When schoolchildren start paying union dues, I’ll start representing schoolchildren."
Gyllenhaal and Davis make a good team. The former is impulsive and enthusiastic, displaying an undefeatable determination. Davis is cautious and reserved, providing a balance and check to her partner in change. Holly Hunter plays another union rep that begins to wonder if they still stand for what’s important.
Director: Daniel Barnz
Starring: Viola Davis
, Maggie Gyllenhaal
and Holly Hunter