‘Down’ scores low marks for drama
Updated: October 1, 2012 12:12PM
“Won’t Back Down”
This earnest, well-intended but only modestly engaging film earns extra credit for addressing a crucially important issue, but below-average marks as a drama.
Though the opening credits proclaim that “Won’t Back Down” was inspired by a true story, it’s more accurate to say it was influenced by the passage of “parent trigger” laws that give concerned parents the opportunity to make big changes at failing public schools. The movie functions, with moderate effectiveness, as a fictional counterpart to the 2010 educational-reform documentary “Waiting for Superman.”
The emotional engine of the story is Jamie Fitzpatrick (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a struggling single mom who’s holding down two jobs while raising her daughter Malia in an impoverished neighborhood in Pittsburgh. Malia is dyslexic and Jamie can no longer afford to pay for a private school where she can get the extra help she needs. That means Malia must go to Adams Elementary, the local public school, where her third-grade teacher rolls her eyes at her inability to spell, read and ignores the way she is bullied in the classroom, among other abuses.
After Jamie’s requests for assistance fall on deaf ears at Adams, which is depicted as a haven for lazy teachers protected by the teacher’s union, Jamie tries and fails to enroll her daughter in a nearby magnet school — where there are only a few openings for hundreds of applicants. There, she makes the acquaintance of Nona Alberts (Viola Davis), who also teaches at Adams and is attempting to find a spot at the magnet school for her learning-disabled son.
Nona, it seems, was once an idealistic and passionate teacher who has been discouraged by the school system. But she still has enough spark left to be intrigued when Jamie presents her with a wildly improbable proposal. Why don’t they follow the lead of the magnet-school founder and attempt to turn Adams into a nonunion charter school that functions outside of the system? All they have to do is get half the parents to sign a petition, convince 18 teachers to give up their tenured positions, take on the teacher’s union, then work their way through a maze of bureaucracy and convince a conservative school board to approve a plan that makes them look bad.
In other words, it’s a perfect set-up for a root-for-the-underdog, triumph-against-the-odds sort of tale, with all the built-in feel-good dividends. That is indeed the path that co-writer/director Daniel Barnz (who also made the 2011 “Beauty and the Beast” update “Beastly”), takes as Jamie and Nona work their way from zero probability to a small groundswell of parent/teacher support to the climactic confrontation at the fateful school-board meeting.
Unfortunately, “Won’t Back Down” spends so much time talking about various aspects of the public-school crisis that the personal drama never has a chance to develop emotional momentum. Gyllenhaal and Davis inject enough of their patented personalities into their roles (feistily charming and nobly suffering, respectively) to keep the predictable plot at least somewhat involving. Yet every time the story starts to build up steam, it cuts away for a consideration of literacy and dropout rates, the challenges and frustrations faced by teachers and the various pros and cons of labor unions.
The teacher’s union essentially functions as the bad-guy in “Won’t Back Down” (specifically, Ned Eisenberg as the union president who stoops to a misinformation campaign and character assassination to fight the proposed new school), yet Barnz goes to great lengths to present their point of view. In addition to giving the union president a monologue about “the pandemic of union-busting in this country,” the film makes room for a gifted teacher who is also pro-labor (and who is basically seduced to join the cause by Jamie) and an entirely extraneous union official (played by Holly Hunter), who is present only to represent hand-wringing conflict about the issue.
It’s a good thing when a film tells a story from a variety of points of view. But it’s not so good when those perspectives turn into lectures. And it’s even worse when they’re come across in a dull, didactic drone.