Plenty of folks will tell you that America's public-education system is not all it could or should be, and that many schools are not serving their communities or students well. But the problems behind it all are tremendously complicated, and the answers are not likely to be any simpler. Complex and nuanced discussions of important political, social, and cultural issues aren't usually the stuff of popular entertainment, and you're not likely to attract a big audience by trying to analyze the many factors that go into improving bad schools. The people who made Won't Back Down weren't going to let that stop them, and ultimately that's its biggest problem -- director Daniel Barnz (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Brin Hill) has made a film that deals with intricate problems in an aggressively simplistic manner, and the movie manages to not only dumb down the issues at hand, but also dilute its storytelling by aiming for the most obvious and emotionally manipulative tropes at nearly every turn.
In Won't Back Down, Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Jamie Fitzpatrick, a single mother struggling to make ends meet while raising her seven-year-old daughter Malia (Emily Alyn Lind). Malia is severely dyslexic, and Jamie is fighting an uphill battle to get her the special-education programs she needs; unfortunately, Jamie can't afford private school, and as she frequently points out, Adams Elementary School (where Malia is enrolled) is a "failing" institution. Adams Elementary doesn't have the money for a special curriculum for children with learning disabilities, and it's Malia's poor fortune that her class is overseen by The Worst Teacher in Film History, who sends text messages and shops for shoes online when she's supposed to be looking after her students, and allows children to soil themselves rather than letting them use the bathroom. Jamie is trying to get Malia into another second-grade class at the school, taught by the more caring and skilled Nona Alberts (Viola Davis), but Nona has troubles of her own -- her husband just left her, her own son Cody (Dante Brown) is struggling with learning problems, and she's dealing with an often uncaring and Byzantine school administration. When Jamie learns of a so-called "parent trigger" law that allow a consortium of parents and teachers to take control of a school with school-board approval, she dives headfirst into a campaign to take over Adams, with Nona joining her after some severe initial reluctance. Jamie also has the moral support of Michael (Oscar Isaac), a teacher who plays ukulele in class and has a butt that wins her immediate approval, but Michael's loyalty to the teachers' union prevents him from committing to her campaign, and more than a few other teachers at Adams agree. The union clearly takes the possibility of a new regime at the school seriously, and while union leader Evelyn Riske (Holly Hunter) wants a fair fight, her colleague Arthur Gould (Ned Eisenberg) launches a smear campaign and isn't above using lies and personal attacks to discredit Jamie and Nona.
While the characters in Won't Back Down say a great deal about the need for better schools for America's children, hardly anyone in the movie says anything concrete about what needs to be done at Adams Elementary beyond pointing out the flaws of the school's bureaucracy and the failings of the teachers' union. The film aims to be inspiring and uplifting, but it puts melodrama far ahead of ideas, which is a crippling flaw given the picture's subject matter. By the end of the movie, it feels like co-writer and director Daniel Barnz has set up a big pep rally without bothering to find a coach who can draw up effective plays. And Maggie Gyllenhaal sure doesn't help as Jamie; her character may ferociously love her child, but she seems far too ditzy and scatterbrained to be put in charge of a school, and her "cute" habit of mispronouncing words with more than two syllables gets tired fast.
Holly Hunter clearly tries to make something of Evelyn, but the script reduces her to a one-dimensional character, and Hunter can't quite get past that. While Nona Alberts doesn't always have much in the way of nuance, Viola Davis finds shadings in her character even when they don't seem to exist in the dialogue or the situations, and more than anyone else in the film, she makes her personal and professional dilemmas feel real and significant; in this seriously flawed picture, Davis delivers more life and heart than anyone else on screen. More than a few critics have suggested that Davis was robbed of an Academy Award for her work in The Help, and while Won't Back Down is a long way from Oscar bait, it shows just how good she can be even with modest material.
If Won't Back Down seems to be aiming to fire up audiences rather than examining the complexities behind the education crisis in America, this may well be what the producers had in mind. The movie was financed in part by Walden Media, which is owned by Philip Anschutz, an outspoken advocate of privatizing the nation's schools who has also criticized teachers' unions. Walden Media also backed the documentary Waiting for "Superman," which was similarly critical of teachers' unions and promoted privatized charter schools. Like Waiting for "Superman," Won't Back Down conveniently ignores some key facts about charter schools -- namely, that they're allowed to pick and choose students, and often won't admit kids who have educational problems. Also, statistics show that most charter schools don't perform better than public schools. (A 2009 study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes examined thousands of charter schools and discovered only 17 percent produced higher test scores than competing public schools, while 37 percent delivered scores that were actually worse.) And while the ads for Won't Back Down declare that the movie is "Inspired by Actual Events," only two school districts have been able to marshal enough public support to take "parent trigger" proposals to the school board (both were in California, while the film is set in Pittsburgh), and both failed. (In one case, enough parents decided they'd been duped by entrepreneurs eager to open a charter school that they sued to take back their signatures on trigger petitions.) In short, Won't Back Down not only feels overly simplified, it seems a bit like propaganda, and the buyer should be aware of who is doing the selling.