Susan Granger's review of 'Won't Back Down'
Published 2:29 pm, Wednesday, October 17, 2012
When reviewing a movie, I try to be as objective as possible -- but this social issue story about exasperated mothers hit a resonant chord. Many years ago, when my daughter had completed an elementary school assignment and asked for something more to do, her incompetent-but-tenured teacher told her to "count the holes" in the ceiling tiles. Furious, I went to the teacher, principal and, eventually, superintendent. I got results -- but that was in the affluent suburb of Woodbridge.
As a single mom whose child attends Adams Elementary in the poverty-stricken, downtown Hill district in Pittsburgh, Jamie Fitzpatrick (Maggie Gyllenhaal) has no such luck. When she realizes her second-grade daughter Malia (Emily Alyn Lind) is dyslexic and asks for help, the teacher (Nancy Bach) curtly explains that union rules prevent her from helping any child after school hours. And the smarmy principal (Bill Nunn) refuses to transfer Malia into a different class.
Jamie's frustration leads her to befriend Nona Alberts (Viola Davis), a conscientious teacher whose son, Cody (Dante Brown), is having trouble in math. Together, they discover that there's a "parent-trigger law" that allows concerned parents who wish to rescue a failing school to take control and redesign it to foster effective learning. Obviously, their educational reform campaign is opposed not only by the stubbornly entrenched administration but also by a representative (Holly Hunter) of the powerful teachers' union.
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Based on an actual incident that occurred in Los Angeles in 2010, the contrived, exposition-heavy script is co-written by Brin Hill and Daniel Barnz, whose heavy-handed direction lacks nuance or subtlety. So despite its obvious emotional appeal, it tackles complex issues and distorts or simplifies them into banal generalities. Which is somewhat surprising since it's co-produced by Walden Media, which was also involved with the excellent, pro-charter school documentary "Waiting for Superman."
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "Won't Back Down" is a preachy yet persuasive 6, appealing to desperate, often outraged parents who are deeply concerned about the obvious failure of the American public school system.