There’s nothing more alarming to power than people organizing themselves to usurp that power. Even if that power is a union, an organization founded to protect the many from the abuses and whims of the few.
That’s the message of “Won’t Back Down,” an inspiring story of a working-class parent hellbent on doing right by her child, and a once-idealistic teacher who joins her in an effort to remake their school from a chronic failure that breeds chronic failures into a place that gives its kids a fighting chance.
Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis put on an acting clinic as single mom Jamie and struggling teacher Nona, who use Pennsylvania’s school “fail-safe” law to change the culture at their Pittsburgh school, expecting more of their children, the kids’ parents and the teachers who instruct them.
Jamie (Gyllenhaal) is a bubbly working-class mom who is holding down two jobs and fretting endlessly over her daughter Malia (Emily Alyn Lind, radiant), a child with learning issues, and a teacher who checked out years ago. One look at the teacher texting in class, the bullying kids the teacher can’t control, and the principal (Bill Nunn) who barely pays lip service to her concerns has Jamie convinced Adams Elementary needs to change. She can’t afford private school or to move to a better district.
She wants her daughter in Nona’s (Davis) class, where – despite bureaucracy, tradition, state requirements and union rules – Jamie spies the glint of a teacher who still cares, who remembers the crowded funeral where former students wept at the death of her own teacher-mother.
Oscar Isaac, having a break-out fall (“10 Years”) plays Michael, a ukulele-playing idealist who is even more reluctant than Nona to join this crusade, a guy who “just wants to teach,” who grew up seeing unions as a force for good, especially in schools.
And Holly Hunter is the union boss who understands that they’ve failed to get ahead of this idea that failing schools cannot be allowed to continue to fail simply to protect jobs, tenure and pensions. She makes the usual moves to head off this “threat” to hard-won teacher’s rights, but lets us know she’s conflicted about her role in this “anti-Norma Rae” saga.
“Won’t Back Down” is a well-directed and edited film that gives most of its cast moments to shine and takes full advantage of the mercurial Maggie G. and simmering but fiery Davis. Daniel Barnz, who also co-wrote this “inspired by a true story” with Brin Hill, goes to some pains to pay lip service to the greater complexity here. Arrogant, political and reluctant-to-act school boards, exhausted or apathetic parents who don’t want to add 20 hours of work to their week helping their kids – they all contribute to a school’s failure.
Ned Eisenberg, playing the union chief, gets to nicely summarize the feeling that organized working people are “under assault” from anti-labor governors and their big business backers, from states like Wisconsin and institutions like the National Football League.
As complex as this us-against-the-odds tale tries to be, it can’t overcome the “rules” of its genre and similar over-generalizations of the documentary “Waiting for Superman.” Oddly, these stories are never set in the failing schools of rural states where teachers and unions have little power against the caprices of backward state and local school boards.
Still, the big moments work and the big scenes pay off. The message is as American as “This Land is Your Land.” Your school isn’t succeeding? Don’t get mad. Get organized. ‘WON’T BACK DOWN’
H H H 1/2 I
Cast: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Holly Hunter, Oscar Isaac, Rosie Perez
Director: Daniel Barnz
Running time: 2:01
Rated: PG; thematic elements, language