Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Holly Hunter, Bill Nunn, Emily Alyn Lind, Oscar Isaac
Brin Hill, Daniel Barnz
20th Century Fox
If you've seen the trailer for this latest film in the "education in crisis" sub-genre of cinema, then there's a pretty strong likelihood that you know exactly what to expect from Won't Back Down, the latest film from Daniel Barnz, who is familiar to Heartland Film Festival fans from his Phoebe in Wonderland and who also gave us last year's better than anyone thought it could possibly be Beastly.
The fact that you can predict just about every note played by Won't Back Down doesn't sink the film, however, mostly owing to its top notch casting and a story that balances inspiration with information and, indeed, doesn't back down from its Waiting for Superman styled premise set against the backdrop of the academic troubles of one little girl, Malia (Emily Alyn Lind), and the mother (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who refuses to give up on getting her daughter the education she needs.
For the most part, Won't Back Down wobbles along while struggling to find a balance between the more heartfelt story of Malia and other characters central to the film and the determination of co-screenwriters Barnz and Brin Hill to paint a convincing story of the real issues plaguing the contemporary educational system.
The film is set in urban Pittsburgh, and Gyllenhaal plays Jamie Fitzpatrick, a fairly typical single mom working two jobs to support her daughter. Malia is dyslexic, and despite her mother's best efforts she's relegated to a lower end second-grade classroom in one of the city's absolutely worst schools. Her teacher doesn't care, a scenario that is beaten to death in multiple scenes as she browses the web looking for shoes while in class and becomes verbally aggressive anytime someone threatens to disrupt her world. When multiple efforts to get Malia moved to a different setting fail, Jamie discovers a Pittsburgh law that allows ordinary citizens to "take over" failing schools, at least if they're working to jump through a seemingly endless array of hoops and red tape. Jamie rather quickly becomes allies with one of the other teachers in her daughter's school (Viola Davis), a former "Teacher of the Year" who has lost her inspiration for teaching but who longs to return to her idealistic days.
While it's a reasonable argument that Won't Back Down comes down pretty hard on teachers unions, Barnz at least makes a decent effort to provide some balance for the film. It's clear that the real culprit here is the resistance to and fear of change, though it would be impossible to deny that Barnz paints Holly Hunter's union official as a woman whose ideals have become warped over the years. But, he also does acknowledge, mostly through the character of Oscar Isaac's Michael Raymond, that unions have contributed greatly to the teaching profession over the years. For the most part, Won't Back Down focuses on solving problems rather than assigning blame.
As formulaic a film as is Won't Back Down, Barnz has beautifully cast the film with actors and actresses who take average material and turn it into an involving and entertaining film. While Maggie Gyllenhaal occasionally adds a bit too much dramatic flair, for the most part she's quite remarkable as a mom who refuses to allow her daughter to become a throwaway kid. Despite the camera's borderline obsession with capturing Gyllenhaal in lower-cut t-shirts and tops with hints of cleavage, Gyllenhaal gives an earthy and heartfelt performance that makes you wish you'd have a mom like her to help you get through life.
The film is stolen, however, by Viola Davis's magnificent turn as Nona, a truly gifted teacher struggling with issues at home and in the classroom. Davis gives a workshop in the art of physical acting, her body becoming a cinematic vessel of apathy, frustration, sadness, grief and determination. As young Malia, Emily Alyn Lind is simply wonderful with a performance that exudes both the innocence of childhood and the tattered edges of a child who is on the verge of being lost forever if something isn't done. Kudos must also be given to Oscar Isaac, who plays another talented teacher and the film's voice of reason as a supporter of unions who is able to see both sides of the argument being presented here.
Barnz proved with both Phoebe in Wonderland and Beastly that he's gifted at directing young people and he's also able to make complex subject matter accessible for a wider audience. Barnz does simplify the issues here, but he doesn't ever dumb them down. Won't Back Down leaves a lasting impact because Barnz beautifully weaves compelling characters into an intelligent and thought-provoking film that will tap into both your heart and mind.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic