Review: ‘Won’t Back Down’
Won’t Back Down brings together two Academy Award nominated actresses in a film that focuses on the broken education system. Even with middle of the road material, the film often is uplifted by good performances and a tough subject matter.
The film focuses on two mothers Jamie (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and Nona Alberts (Viola Davis) who decide to take over a school that reeks of bad education and teachers. Realizing her dyslexic daughter is getting lousy education from the broken down school, Jamie seeks to do something- anything, to get some good teachers and practice in the place. With private schools out of her price range, she discovers a failsafe law that allows dissatisfied parents to overrule administration and union rules to rebuild the school from the inside out. Apparently this is a real thing (The Parent Trigger Law); however, the law is almost built to fail as it requires near impossible demands to be passed. But it doesn’t stop Jamie who will stop at nothing for her daughter. She is able to recruit Nona, a teacher at the school her daughter is at. Nona is having her own trouble with her son and husband. While reluctant and scared of the plan, she decides to jump on board to rediscover her love and importance of teaching. Jamie inspires Nona (and vice versa) each coming from very different backgrounds, yet wanting the same thing. Before you know it, it’s all-out war between parents, union bosses, union workers, and teachers. There are different opinions on the matter where everyone seems to have something on the line.
Following in the footsteps of the Blind Side and Secretariat, the film is another schmaltzy ‘tough as nails mother vs. Goliath’ themed movie. Gyllenhaal plays her character like Drew Barrymore meets Erin Brockovich. It takes a while to root for her because she is so offbeat. She is a little too peppy and lighthearted for such a gritty subject matter. Gyllenhaal is a fine actress and it’s good to have a character you wouldn’t expect to lead an assault against a bureaucracy, but perhaps it wasn’t the right lead character. Like Meryl Streep, Viola Davis proves to give great performances even when the movie is not up to par. You can always rely that she won’t just call in a performance. Although not as heart wrenching as her performances in The Help or Doubt, she still is the MVP of the cast. It’s not Oscar material but good nonetheless. Viola Davis really helps the film and frankly it should have focused more on her. Davis’s character is more tragic, has more to lose, and is the more interesting of the two lead women. While one would argue she is a lead, she is not front and center like Gyllenhaal.
Now the movie is pretty generic in the fact that we have seen this formulaic set-up before. Based on the trailers alone, we know how it will end; it should come to no surprise. We can catch the movie’s beats without even trying. It’s clichéd, cheesy, and nothing new. That being said, it’s well-acted and at the very least a good subject matter that should get people talking. While nowhere near as gripping as the documentary based on the same subject matter, Waiting for Superman, the film does offer some good points of views taking on everyone’s stake on the matter. In fact, Holly Hunter gives a good performance as a conflicted union boss. She is probably the most unpredictable wild card not knowing which side she is loyal to. And while for the most part there is a clear-cut villain, it’s a little more of a gray area for a many of the other characters. Even in the fight for the greater good, there are sacrifices that not everyone is on board on.
Director Daniel Barnz doesn’t really have an artistic vision to the screen. The movie is the very definition of ‘point and shoot.’ A huge missed opportunity was getting the kids’ opinions on the matter. Sure, we hear mothers and teachers screaming “Won’t somebody think of the children?!” when in fact, we don’t really hear much from them. We get a couple scenes with both Jamie and Nona’s own child however they are mostly silent playing generic kids with some personal issues. We could have used more scenes in the classroom, elevating the fact that the kids are the real victims. Again, there are a couple scenes that do this, but they are so brief that we end up forgetting them as the film jumps from fund raiser montage to the next unnecessary love interest scene (love interest Michael played by guitar playing Oscar Isaac).
The film is almost too polished and pristine for such a gritty subject matter. We get one teacher in particular who is a bit cruel, but overall the good teachers highly outnumber the bad, which makes you wonder why this school is so awful. Won’t Back Down is what you would expect it to be- nothing more, nothing less. It’s kind of inspirational, kind of heart warming, kind of…well everything. It’s nothing to write home to mom about but it’s surely not a disaster by any means. Being generic is the movie’s biggest problem, and honestly, is not the worst problem to have. But thanks to some good performances, the film is ever so slightly a touch above a well-made Lifetime channel film.