Daniel Barnz's education drama opens like a horror movie with a bleachy close-up of a frightened girl who winces when gunfire explodes from the back of her school room. The shots sound effects from a classmate's video game, but the teacher doesn't care—she's on her cellphone, lazily ordering the dyslexic 8-year-old to read faster without actually helping her learn how. Who will come to the girl's (Emily Alyn Lind) rescue? Not the principal, but mom Maggie Gyllenhaal, a tattooed barmaid who could've used a good education herself, is going to give it a heck of a try. Won't Back Down makes grand drama of bureaucracy, positioning Gyllenhaal as the knight slaying 400 pages of government paperwork in order to wrest control of her daughter's elementary school. It's rousing—if not thrilling—stuff, a multivitamin for a multiplex crowd, and if co-star Viola Davis can lure in the do-gooders who made a minor hit out of The Help, Won't Back Down should score a solid box office B-minus.
Adams Elementary, the fictional Pittsburgh grade school that plays Moby Dick to Gyllenhaal's academically-aggravated Ahab, has no champions—not even among its own teachers. "Adams is where education goes to die," moans schoolmarm Rosie Perez, and her co-worker Davis nods in knowing agreement. Though Davis used to win teaching awards, she's sunken into Adams apathy and lets her kids stare blankly at their desks when she asks them to name a verb. And Davis is the teacher Gyllenhaal wishes taught her girl.
The two meet at an entrance lottery for the local magnet school—the irony of Davis getting her son out of her own school system isn't lost on either of them—and Gyllenhaal realizes Davis is the catalyst she needs to get half of Adams' teacher to sign her petition to trigger Pittsburgh's fictitious Fail Safe Law, which would break the union contracts that give bad teachers tenure and instead cede control of the school to the parents. Provided, that is, they stick it out through a Sisyphean series of meetings, meetings to set up future meetings, and meetings in which everyone insists to Gyllenhaal that rescuing the school simply can't be done. Still, she's stubborn, cooing, "Do you wanna start a school with me?" to Davis almost as if she's asking her out on a date. And by the end of the film, the pair almost seem married—or rather, like sister-wives married to the cause of equal academic opportunity.
Much of this is pure fiction. Fail Safe laws have only been invoked at two different schools, and both insurrections were shut down by lawsuits. But in an era of widespread ennui, it's emboldening to see Gyllenhaal squeeze into a tight camouflage shirt and raise hell. For villains, we're given Holly Hunter and Ned Eisenberg as heads of the local teachers' union, but while Eisenberg is the Snidely Whiplash-type, Hunter seems genuinely torn about her loyalties to teachers and children. Won't Back Down's premiere was stormed by a phalanx of union supporters who fear the film is an assault against everything Norma Rae (literally) stood for, but you only have to squint a little to see the resemblance between Gyllenhaal and Sally Field, two chipmunk-cheeked brunettes who knew when to fight. Maybe you don't agree with how they fight, but the hopes leaders like them fought, fight, and will fight for are universal.
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Cast: Viola Davis, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Holly Hunter, Ving Rhames, Rosie Perez,
Director: Daniel Barnz
Screenwriters: Brin Hill, Daniel Barnz
Producer: Mark Johnson
Rating: PG for thematic elements and language.
Running time: 120 min.
Release date: September 28, 2012
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