[Screen It]

(2012) (Viola Davis, Maggie Gyllenhaal) (PG)

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Drama: In a working-class Pittsburgh neighborhood, a single mom and a fed-up teacher seek to start their own school to better teach the local kids.
Jamie (MAGGIE GYLLENHAAL) is a working-class single mother in Pittsburgh who is exasperated that her daughter, Malia (EMILY ALYN LIND), is falling behind in school and neither her teacher nor Principal Holland (BILL NUNN) seems to care. The school itself has earned a failing grade for years, Malia obviously has dyslexia, the administrators will not allow her to be moved to a better class, and the principal at her old school where she did well will not allow her back in.

At the same time, Nona (VIOLA DAVIS) is a teacher at Malia's school and has grown increasingly fed up with the state education department's bureaucracy that has hindered students' success, and the increasingly uncaring nature of her colleagues who have gotten tenure under lax Teachers Union criteria. She is recently divorced from Charles (LANCE REDDICK), who has since bought a home in a much better school district and would like to have custody of their learning disabled son, Cody (DANTE BROWN), during the week so he can attend the local blue-ribbon school. Nona bristles at the idea and wants to continue working with him on the side.

Soon, these two women team up after Jamie gets the idea of starting their own school, which would employ non-union teachers and offer a more flexible and focused curriculum. They run afoul of Teachers Union heads Arthur Gould (NED EISENBERG) and Evelyn Riske (HOLLY HUNTER); a beaten-down bureaucrat named Olivia Lopez (MARIANNE JEAN-BAPTISTE); fellow teachers, including Nona's good friend Breena (ROSIE PEREZ), who are hesitant to challenge the status quo; and too many apathetic parents.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
How much you are affected by "Won't Back Down" (and yes, just writing those three words puts that deeply annoying Tom Petty song in my head for hours) will likely depend on where you are at with your own kids if you have kids, that is. The movie, about a couple of moms in working-class Pittsburgh who take on the Teachers Union to start their own school, affected me on a deeply personal level because I am the daddy to a 7-year-old girl. And while my Maddie is in a terrific public elementary school, the local junior high is poor and the senior high leads the county in - eek! - teen pregnancies! How bad is it? The school actually has an on-site daycare facility!

So, the choice in a few years is either to send her to private school or move to a better school district. And in Maryland, it seems the only good middle and senior high schools are in vastly overpriced towns and counties where the Realtors and housing developers whore you on prices almost solely because they have the good schools. I'm making plans now.

But most parents aren't as obsessed about these things as I am. I've been told, "Aw, Ted, don't worry. It's four years in the future. The middle school could get better." Things don't get better, folks. "Won't Back Down" clearly shows that education is not getting better. And if you the parent aren't out there fighting your guts out for your kid(s) and demanding better, your child will pay and pay dearly. So when Maggie Gyllenhaal's single mom and Viola Davis' fed-up teacher are up there giving impassioned pleas to the state school board to give their new school a chance, when Davis' Nona Alberts is rallying other instructors to give up their union membership and join her, when Gyllenhaal's Jamie Fitzpatrick is outside of her daughter's school inundating the neighborhood parents with flyers and petitions, my conditioned response as a parent on the front line - not a film critic - is to not so silently mutter, "You go, girl!"

"Won't Back Down" works like that -- on a purely emotional level. It is made with passion and fire in the gut, and it is ultimately a moving experience the closer these ladies and their supporters get to realizing their dream. Both leads are terrific in their respective roles and never play down to their working-class characters. This isn't Hollywood's elite "slumming it." You completely buy them in these parts, and director and co-screenwriter Daniel Barnz and his production crew do a great job setting their scenes in real blue-collar homes, bars, schools, and workplaces.

I do wish the film was a bit better, though. At the end, you feel like the movie is trying to call its audience to arms. But it doesn't really offer them any suggestions or advice other than to well "Care More." It's the movie equivalent of the Occupy Movement. What do you guys really want to have happen? After all, most people couldn't do what Jamie and Nona do in this movie. So you walk out of "Won't Back Down" feeling a bit strange. You've just cheered on some true crusaders and emotionally invested yourself in their plight. But you're kind of left with nowhere to go yourself in the real world.

And while the film is extremely fair to the Teachers Unions in dramatizing both their good points and bad points, it does feel a bit like Barnz and co-screenwriter Brin Hill pull a few punches here to avoid their film getting blistered by these powerful organizations. But come on. If you're gonna be angry, be REALLY angry! I understand the need for tact and keeping control of the narrative. At the same time, though, it's also OK to let your emotions get the better of you in making a movie of this type.

Still, there is a lot to admire here. Chiefly, it's the casting of so many past female Oscar nominees who add their own level of passion and conviction to a script that admittedly contains too much speechifying and not enough scenes where people just talk to each other. In addition to Gyllenhaal and Davis, you have Oscar winner Holly Hunter as a conflicted union head and former nominees Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Rosie Perez in smaller, but equally pivotal roles. There is an economy of screenplay at work here that certainly lets Gyllenhaal and Davis have their star turns, but gives each of these ladies their moments to shine.

"Won't Back Down" is inspired by actual events, so I am sure the real story on which this is based is just as compelling. Would I have been as affected by the movie if I didn't have a daughter and had my wary eye on her future at all times? I can't say for sure. I can only say that it is a film of its time, and I rate it a solid 6 out of 10. (T. Durgin)

Reviewed September 24, 2012 / Posted September 28, 2012

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