Jamie Fitzpatrick (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a poor single mother of eight-year old Malia (Emily Alyn Lind). Jamie has multiple tattoos and beads separate the rooms in her small, cluttered apartment. She also substitutes cola in her coffee when she runs out of sugar. These things clue us in that Jamie is, naturally, kooky and uneducated. But she’s a caring mom and loves her daughter, who struggles with reading due to dyslexia.
Unable to afford the tuition at a better school where Malia was receiving the attention she required, Jamie is forced to put Malia back into the local public school. One day Jamie stops by the classroom and is shocked at what she sees. Malia’s teacher is vile and uncaring and doesn’t even make an attempt to look up from her cellphone long enough to teach or bother staying a minute past 3:00 PM. You see, Malia’s teacher is tenured, which apparently means she doesn’t have to do anything or answer to anyone. Her job is safe.
After unsuccessful attempts to switch Malia to a different class, Jamie enters Malia into a lottery to
be selected as tribute attend a promising charter school, but Malia is not selected. While there, Jamie recognizes a teacher from Malia’s school, Nona Alberts (Viola Davis), who is also hoping to get her son into the better institution. Nona, disenchanted with her profession and in a failing marriage, sympathizes with Jamie’s struggles but remains hopeless and jaded. That’s until Jamie learns about something called the “Fail Safe Law” (based on “parent trigger laws”) in which parents and teachers can literally take over a failing school and turn it into a charter school. This is much more difficult than it sounds with mountains upon mountains of paperwork, meetings to schedule meetings, petitions, signatures, and convincing teachers to give up their tenure and union benefits.
But it’s clearly the only solution so Jamie and Nona join forces and take on the long fight. Their attempts are at first laughed off by the local teachers union, but as they gain more support Jamie and Nona are soon viewed as a threat and the union strikes back.
If there is one thing that (almost) saves this film, it’s the always-superb Viola Davis. Davis gives her all and wrings every possible layer out of her thinly-drawn character. This movie does not deserve her.
“You is kind. You is smart. You is important. And you. And you. And you too!”
I’ll also raise a glass to the efforts of the supporting cast. Holly Hunter, Oscar Isaac, and an underused Rosie Perez all do their best with what they’re given, which again, isn’t much. Emily Alyn Lind also shows promise and brings to mind a young Dakota Fanning.
Oh, and they do play Tom Petty’s song of the same name (during a montage of the characters standing their ground and not backing down of course.)
As I’m sure you may have heard, there has been a lot of controversy surrounding the release of Won’t Back Down with many teachers and parents calling for boycotts of the film as well as the actors involved. The American Federation of Teachers has very publicly objected to the film. Those that oppose it claim it’s thinly-veiled propaganda that vilifies unions and dumbs down the issues at hand. You can check out the petition against the film here.
I am not a parent, it’s been a pretty long time since I was in (public) elementary school, and I didn’t know these parent trigger laws were even a thing prior to this film. I’m not against unions and I don’t know enough about charter schools to be against them either. It would have been nice to see both sides represented and debated and draw my own conclusions. Isn’t the point of movies like this to make the audience think? Writer/director Daniel Barnes (Beastly – no further embellishment required) doesn’t think so. Instead, Barnes paints the union as the bad guys we must root against.
“Wait. Aren’t we in a union?”
Even more frustrating, the film never answers the questions “what will they actually do once they take over the school?” and “How will they improve it?” Unless that answer is: wonderfulmagicalunicornrainbows.
You know those movies that manipulate you into feeling a certain way by using clichés such as melodramatically swelling music, lingering close-up shots of EMOTION, and non-subtle use of color schemes? This is one of them.
Now I admit, I am often a sucker for these kinds of movies (see my Two Beer review of last week’s Trouble With the Curve) and even I was rolling my eyes and groaning every five minutes.
Barnes attempts to play puppet master with his audience and fails terribly. His marionette strings are never invisible. Or silent, as they are connected to a violin (or maybe it’s a cello, I don’t know) that incessantly plays this irritating “rousing” piece of “Let’s make a change!” music to accompany a character being inspired. I correctly predicted every single damn time that music would start. Since seeing this film I now hear it play in my head every time I get an idea. It makes me never want to think or do anything with purpose again for the rest of my life. I’ve found that laying on my couch and watching Here Comes Honey Boo Boo marathons helps keep the music away.
Numb my brain Honey Boo Boo. Make the violincellos stop!
The visual cues are just as bad. The early scenes of the doomed school are shot shaky-cam style and in murky hues while the good schools are gleaming and Oz-like.
Then there’s the script itself. Except for a couple scattered feeble attempts to have a few non-villainous characters argue the positive points of unions, the screenplay depicts the anti-charter side as evil and greedy scoundrels that don’t want the children TO LEARN! There is absolutely no in-between. The characters are either Team Takeover or Team Awful, Awful Human Beings. If one of the smug union guys had a handlebar mustache and tied little Malia to a set of train tracks it wouldn’t seem out of place.
“Now you’ll never overcome your dyslexia MUAHAHAHAHA!”
It’s cartoonish, ridiculous and so, so bad.
Speaking of bad, can we talk about Maggie Gyllenhaal for a minute?
While I predict Davis will earn an Oscar nomination (and possible win as a make-up for The Help), Gyllenhaal is a shoo-in for a Razzie. To call her crazy-eyed performance over-the-top and hysterical would be an understatement. She’s going for spunky, but it comes off as clinically insane. I audibly snorted in the theater at one point in which she runs over (throughout the entire movie if Jamie is going somewhere, she is run-NING) to her daughter and dramatically hugs her.
Here to reenact her performance, I present to you, Mr. Wayne Campbell:
Maggie Gyllenhaal is actually very talented, as nearly every other film on her resume proves, so once again, I am faulting Daniel Barnes with this laughable (and snortable) turn. I could just picture him sitting in his director’s chair yelling “More, Maggie, give me more! More anger! More arm-flailing! Run faster! Run faster while flailing your arms! Run like you’re running for that Oscar! Wider! Open your eyes wider!! And scene!”
The film plays the old “Inspired by actual events” card. I’m always interested in finding out the true events behind a movie that claims to be based on facts so I did a little investigating.
Here’s what I found out:
- There are no real-life people named Nona Alberts and Jamie Fitzpatrick.
- Parent-trigger laws were passed in only seven states, none of which are Pennsylvania, where this movie takes place.
- Number of schools ever being taken over as the result of this law? Zero.
I’m not sure what “actual events” inspired this story. My best guess is that either Daniel Barnes or co-writer Brin Hill once had a charismatic teacher that played a ukulele in their classroom.
I was looking for a still from the film of Oscar Isaac’s character playing ukulele in his classroom, but this popped up when I searched “Won’t Back Down ukulele” so enjoy.
Won’t Back Down strives to be an inspiring story about people fighting for what’s right but instead comes off as a ham-fisted and overly-simplified anti-union propaganda piece. Besides its skewed politics, the storytelling is annoyingly manipulative and the characters are one-dimensional caricatures. This movie may be worth a watch with a few beers for Maggie Gyllenhaal’s unintentionally hilarious performance.
“That Honey Boo Boo is such a character!”
Take a Drink: every time the annoying “let’s make a change!” music starts playing.
Take a Drink: every time Maggie Gyllenhaal bugs her eyes out.
Take a Drink: every time Maggie Gyllenhaal runs.
Take a Drink: every time you’re reminded of Erin Brockovich.
Take a Drink: every time Holly Hunter wears a different scarf.
Take a Drink: at every shot of a character dramatically reacting or crying that goes on wayyy too long.
Take a Drink: every time the movie tries to make you cry. (If you actually fall for it, finish your drink, stop watching and watch a movie called Hachi: A Dog’s Tale– immersion therapy.)
Take a Shot: when it’s finally over