The makers of Won’t Back Down might have the best interests of children in mind, but the best interests of moviegoers are another matter.
This earnest drama about school reform wants to be a crowd-pleaser with the power to persuade ordinary parents to speak out when it comes to fixing the public education system, yet a heavy-handed approach only muddles its message.
It feels somewhat like a fictionalized version of the hard-hitting documentary Waiting for Superman, only with the eye-opening facts and figures replaced by slick melodrama and cheap sentimentality.
Maggie Gyllenhaal stars as Jamie, a single mother in Pittsburgh whose young daughter (Emily Alyn Lind) is struggling in public school due both to her dyslexia and the apathy of her tenured teacher.
She can’t afford private school and isn’t allowed to transfer her child to another classroom, so Jamie channels her frustration into becoming a crusader for improvement of the failing public education system.
Jamie recruits Nona (Viola Davis), a teacher at her daughter’s school who also is mother concerned about the lackluster performance of the campus. Together they try to launch a charter school that could give non-union teachers more freedom but less job security.
While the women try to rally the community around the idea, however, they are met with plenty of resistance and bureaucratic red tape.
As the latest cinematic example of everyday citizens fighting the system, Won’t Back Down is effective in its portrayal of contemporary working-class socioeconomic hopelessness, yet its emotional impact is blunted by a lack of subtlety.
Perhaps the screenplay by Brin Hill and director Daniel Barnz (Beastly) deserves credit for taking a stance on a topical social issue. However, that effort is wasted since the film presents such a narrow-minded view of real-world problems and solutions.
While it’s inspired by a true story, there’s a silly romantic subplot that comes straight off the Hollywood assembly line. Jamie’s vision seems more idealistic than practical, but that doesn’t stop the movie from discarding logic and barging toward a ridiculous grandstanding climax.
It’s not difficult to see why the film has raised the ire of teacher unions across the country by portraying them as bullies and oversimplified obstacles to quality education. As such, Won’t Back Down misses with its criticism of a wide-open target and is therefore is unlikely to inspire change.
Rated PG-13, 121 minutes.