‘Won’t Back Down’ gets a barely passing grade

Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal in 'Won't Back Down'
Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal in ‘Won’t Back Down’

“Malia Fitzpatrick” (Lynd) is in the 2nd grade at John Adams Elementary school in Pittsburgh, and she has a problem. She can’t read very well. The fact that she has dyslexia just exacerbates the problem. So does the fact that she was forced to leave the private school she had been attending due to her mother’s financial problems. Her mother, “Jamie Fitzpatrick” (Gyllenhaal), loves her daughter very much, but she’s a single mom working two jobs just to make ends meet. Even if she wanted to help her daughter with her studies, her own education is lacking. This is evident in some of the words she seems to make up that aren’t part of the ordinary English language. But she’s willing to do anything to help her daughter, which includes going to a lottery to get her daughter into the Rosa Parks Charter School, where “Principal Thompson” (Rhames) has done an incredible job and urges the parents of the children who don’t get into his school to keep fighting.

It is at this lottery that Jamie gets to talk to “Nona Alberts” (Davis) about Malia’s problems. Nona is the other 2nd grade teacher at Adams and Jamie wants to get Malia into her class, but she’s already been turned down several times by the school’s principal. After a failed attempt to get in to see the district superintendent, Jamie learns there is a parent trigger law that allows parents and teachers to take over and change failing schools. There’s a great big F hanging figuratively on Adams, and Jamie realizes that Nona and she are the right two parents/teacher to use this law to make changes.

Jamie is also inspired by seeing a terrific teacher at Adams, “Michael Perry” (Isaac), who she wants to enlist in their efforts. But he’s resistant, supporting the teacher’s union which is vehemently opposed to any effort to use this law. Seems that when this happens, the teachers at the newly changed school are no longer union teachers. The union’s opposition is represented by “Evelyn Riske” (Hunter) at the direction of her boss, the president of TAP (Teacher’s Association of Pennsylvania).

The law requires that 50% of the parents and teachers support the petition for change before they can even schedule an appointment to schedule a hearing before the school board. They also have to come up with a 400-page proposal that must be absolutely perfect in every detail, or the board will summarily dismiss it and tell them to try again next year. With two months to go before the current board’s term ends, the clock is ticking fast.

The acting in this film is excellent with Oscar nominees Gyllenhaal and Davis really showing off their considerable talents. But the film itself is flawed. It is cloying and maudlin, apparently in the belief that this is the only way to move the audience to care about a truly important social issue. The manipulation of audience emotion wasn’t required. Nor were plot devices to make the struggle of Alberts and Fitzpatrick even more difficult that it would be under normal circumstances.

Worse yet, the writing takes too much poetic license with the realities of the public and private education system. No charter school is holding a lottery in the middle of the year for 40 spaces, several at each grade level. With the fierce competition to get into such a school, only death, emergency or being forced to relocate would get a parent to take their kid out of that kind of school. Worse yet is a plotpoint where Riske gets an expensive, exclusive private school in the area to offer a place and full financial aid to Jamie for Malia. The notion that a union official, even a former teacher, like Riske could get a private school to do such a thing mid-year is just ridiculous. It’s an out-and-out bribe to drop the effort to change Adams and protect union jobs and while it serves to drive the story forward; in the end it’s just too much to swallow.

If you are really interested in the problems of the public school systems read “Savage Inequalities” by Jonathan Kozol. It’s over 20 years old but still resonates today. Or try “Two Americas, Two Educations: Funding Quality Schools for All Students” by Paul F. Cummins.

Won’t Back Down does describe the problem fairly well, especially when we’re shown a teacher who is too busy texting and shopping for shoes on the computer at her desk, rather than paying attention to how poorly Malia reads.

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