Summary: A determined parent and a passionate teacher challenge the failing public school system.
Review: Although Won’t Back Down is packed with Oscar nominees (Viola Davis, Rosie Pérez, Maggie Gyllenhaal) the film is pre-destined for heavy criticism. The Daniel Barnz-directed movie tackles heavy issues: children, education and unions — all topics that stir up angry concoctions in America. Therefore, most of the critiques of the film will be about the hot button topics versus the actual film, which is not without flaws but a solid movie with moments that pull at your heartstrings. But maybe I am biased; I survived the Philadelphia public school system.
“Change a school, change a neighborhood” is one of the lines from Viola Davis’ character, Nona Alberts. Alberts is a teacher who once had a passion for the classroom but is now disenchanted with the system. She is inspired by Jamie, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character, whose daughter suffers from dyslexia and is falling behind in a classroom with an unconcerned teacher who cannot be reprimanded because she is a member of the union. The plot line is similar to what we saw in the phenomenal documentary Waiting for Superman.
Sure, there are no surprises in Won’t Back Down and the ending is predictable. But the 20th Century Fox film is less about shocking plot twists and more about the passion from average Americans who are exhausted by a dysfunctional system. Any clichés or cheese-ball one-liners — and there are quite a few — are redeemed by outstanding performances. Maggie Gyllenhaal is believable as a frantic but driven single mother who wants a better life for her child than the poverty stricken environment of Pittsburgh. Rosie Pérez, one of the most underrated actresses of our generation, provides a balance in the debate of unions (much of the conflict revolves around “taking over” their school with no unions — good teachers go unprotected).
The grand diva of the cast is the consistently powerful Viola Davis. Ms. Davis could play Donald Trump in a film and make it believable. The Tony winner is clearly touched by a higher power; her gift for bringing a character to life is astounding. Right when the film was about to crash and burn in bad Lifetime movie territory, Viola popped up on-screen and saved the cinematic day.
On another note, hats off to the director, Daniel Barnz, for presenting such a diverse film. This story was more about class than race. There wasn’t a stereotypical “white savior” or a downtrodden black character who sings the blues. Davis’ character was middle class, while Gyllenhaal’s character was the one living below the poverty line. Very few Hollywood films get diversity right on the big screen, Won’t Back Down did.
Whether you are a teacher, parent or student, Won’t Back Down is a must-see. Regardless of protests, there is an undeniable emotionality in the flick that rises above politics.
Won’t Back Down is in theaters today.