Won't Back Down belongs to a new genre of horror movie, aimed directly at parents of small kids, known as "Education Nightmares." Past examples of this peculiar breed include the documentaries The Lottery and Waiting for Superman, which, like this loosely dramatized version of real events, seek to terrify adults about the troubled state of American public education. And it's true that there are a myriad of problems confronting public schools in America, but those issues deserve better treatment than these fear-mongering features are willing to give them. With its melodramatic flourishes, simplistic black-and-white moralizing and general aura of studied manipulation, Won't Back Down is part of the problem rather than the solution.
Co-written and directed by Daniel Barnz, who previously helmed the contemporary camp favorite Beastly (a movie that, despite being a fantasy, is actually more believable than this supposedly true story), Won't Back Down casts Maggie Gyllenhaal as Jamie Fitzpatrick, a crusading single mother whose third-grade daughter is being ignored by the staff at her failing neighborhood public school. After complaining fruitlessly to the principal and even the local Board of Education, Jamie learns that there's a long and tangled bureaucratic process by which teachers and parents can assume control of their institution. Pulling this off requires finding an ally amongst the group of checked-out educators who only go through the motions of teaching their pupils. Fortunately, there is someone in that building who still cares: Nona Alberts (Viola Davis), a once-idealistic teacher whose skills have atrophied in the face of continued neglect and mistreatment by her administrators. Together, Jamie and Nora set about shaking up the culture of the school, making plenty of allies and even more enemies (mostly represented by a tyrannical teacher's union) along the way. In the interest of wringing some kind of suspense and surprise out of this utterly predictable story, let's continue the rest of the this review in pop quiz form.
1. Jamie is written as a kooky, lively young woman who makes a lot of mistakes but remains devoted to her child. Gyllenhaal thus chooses to play her as:
A) A naïve idealist
B) A well-meaning screw-up
C) A cutesy MILF
D) A crazy person
Bugging her eyes out wildly and flailing her arms about like a marionette who has just been cut loose from its strings, Gyllenhaal resembles nothing less than a live-action version of the crazy cat lady from The Simpsons. If I were Nona -- not to mention Jamie's daughter -- I'd be booking her a psychiatrist's appointment instead of signing on to her foolhardy plan to take over the school. Once upon a time, Maggie was by far the most promising young talent in the Gyllenhaal clan, but in recent years that honor has passed to her brother Jake, who has atoned for inflicting that Prince of Persia movie on the general public through great performances in movies like Source Code and the recent End of Watch. Meanwhile, Maggie seems stuck in second gear. I can't help but blame it on her decision to replace Katie Holmes in The Dark Knight; Tom Cruise clearly put some kind of Scientology-backed super-whammy on her. Maybe he'll consider lifting it now that he and Katie are kaput.
2. Coming off her Oscar-nominated performance in The Help, Davis chose this role because:
A) She could do it in her sleep
B) She wanted to teach Meryl Streep a lesson
C) She hates kids
D) She thought it was a Tom Petty biopic
Don't get me wrong, Viola Davis is a national treasure. But this role is a cakewalk for her and she knows it, doing just enough to show us she's at least read the script, but not wearing herself out by bringing the same level of intensity she displayed in Doubt, The Help and even Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Nona is the stoic center to Jamie's giant spaz and Davis at least deserves credit for resisting what must have been an overpowering urge to slap her co-star and yell at her to calm the hell down. (Fun fact: The movie does play the titular Tom Petty track over the closing credits, which again may have fooled Davis into thinking she was going up for an overdue Heartbreakers biopic. Someone should make that movie one day.)
3. The group that emerges from Won't Back Down looking the worst are:
Answer: All of the above
Barnz doesn't even try to hide the fact that his loyalty lies with the parents, merrily portraying most of the union officials as giant assholes, while the school's principal (played by Bill Nunn) is made out to be a duplicitous scumbag and the third grade teacher overseeing Jamie's daughter may as well be a child murderer. But for all his efforts to direct our sympathy Jamie's way, she's too much of a twit to take seriously. Despite what the movie would have you believe, fixing the problems plaguing public schools isn't a simple good guy/bad guy scenario, especially when the good guys in this telling aren't all that good.
4. The subplot that inspires the highest amount of eye-rolling is:
A) Jamie's flirtation with a hot male teacher
B) Nona's problems with her husband
C) Nona's problems with her son
D) Jamie being into hockey
Although the forced romance between Jamie and studly ukulele-playing teacher Michael (Oscar Isaac) is a close second, what puts Nona's conflict with her academically struggling son Cody (Dante Brown) over the top is a risible late-inning scene where she confesses to potentially having been the cause of his slow learning ability. A would-be tearjerking moment dropped into the movie only to give Davis an Oscar clip (not that a nomination is likely this time around), it may be the falsest moment in a movie full of them.
5. Which education-themed movie is better than Won't Back Down?
A) Stand and Deliver
B) Dangerous Minds
C) To Sir, With Love
D) High School High
Answer: All of the Above
Yes, even the Jon Lovtiz spoof High School High is a more authentic and moving film about teachers trying to turn around failing schools than Won't Back Down. And at least most of the laughs it inspires are intentional.
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