Won't Back Down means well, but is too preachy and simplistic to inspire any change. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays a young mother frustrated by her daughter's underperforming inner-city school. The teachers are lazy and principal unresponsive, and Gyllenhaal's character partners with Viola Davis' burned-out educator to rally the community behind their plan to revitalize the elementary school. Won't Back Down tackles issues better and more subtly explained by recent documentary Waiting for Superman, and is too content with its feel-good moralizing to give the other side a chance to respond. Gyllenhaal and Davis are too good for this Hallmark-light material, and Won't Back Down is a frustrating mishmash of ideas that manages only to further confuse the issues at hand.
Young mother Jamie Fitzpatrick (Gyllenhaal) works two jobs to support her daughter Malia (Emily Alyn Lind), who struggles with dyslexia and attends a crumbling elementary school in downtown Pittsburgh, where she is given little remedial assistance. Malia's teacher is awful - texting while the kids come to blows in the classroom - but is the highest paid due to seniority and tenure. Nona Alberts (Davis) is almost as bad. After years at the school, she is content to sit like a zombie as her class fails to grasp basic concepts. Jamie enters Malia into a lottery to win a spot at a charter school, which she doesn't receive, and notices Nona is also there for her son. Jamie eventually wears down the already weary Nona, and the pair contacts the local board of education about fixing the school. This requires creating a complex instructional plan and getting support from parents and teachers, most of whom are afraid to sign on and lose their union-protected jobs.
As Waiting for Superman showed, there are some real problems with the country's poorest public schools. Lousy teachers, crumbling buildings, unmotivated kids and unending bureaucracy all contribute to the cause. Won't Back Down's fatal mistake is taking an overly simplistic view that nearly everything and everyone involved with these schools is evil. The film's primary target? Teachers' unions. We don't really have these in the South, but I suspect that union leaders don't meet in Dr. Evil-esque conspiratory meetings to make the lives of parents and teachers as miserable as possible. Won't Back Down actually makes union heads, including Holly Hunter's is-she-or-isn't-she-a-bitch Evelyn Riske, into smirking villains. Sure, crappy teachers with tenure sometimes keep their jobs, but Won't Back Down makes it seem like every. single. union. teacher. is incompetent.
I'm both an advocate and a product of public schools, but Won't Back Down's criticisms are too blunt to make a proper analysis worthwhile. Why does Jamie not contact the board with her concerns before going rogue? And why does she not insist Malia receive an Individualized Education Plan noting her disability so Malia can receive benefits and proper instruction? Supporting characters are cardboard at best, including music teacher Michael Perry (Oscar Isaac), who dates Jamie and gets upset over her constant union bashing. Rosie Perez plays another, semi-decent teacher at the school who is upset when Nona doesn't tell her about the plan.
Won't Back Down is the second movie I've watched this week that made me want to throw things at the screen (The first is Compliance). Won't Back Down is completely unhinged from reality. People simply don't behave in the way this smug little movie thinks they do. The threat of losing a job is a big motivator for lazy public servants, but the men and women who oppose Jamie are downright nasty. How is it that six out of seven members of the board of education act like petulant children? And I half expected Malia's teacher to haul off and punch Jamie, since her behavior is only one step below that level of crazy. Perhaps I'm being too harsh here, but just because a movie means well doesn't excuse it from being called on its bullshit.
The 2.35:1/1080p/AVC-encoded image is solid, with sparkling colors and good detail. Sharpness and clarity are good, and skin tones are natural. There's a bit of black crush in early scenes, but things improve as the film moves forward. The image retains some light, film-like grain, and I noticed no edge enhancement.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is largely front-loaded, but appropriate for this dialogue-driven film. Some ambient effects, like crowd noise, drift into the surround speakers, but the rears and subwoofer are rarely called upon for combat duty. A Descriptive English 5.1 Dolby Digital track and Spanish and French 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks are also available, as are English SDH and Spanish subtitles.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
This single-disc release comes in a Blu-ray eco-case. An insert with a code to redeem an UltraViolet digital copy is provided. The Audio Commentary by Director Daniel Barnz includes a lot of back patting for the cast and crew. Barnz does, however, seem very sincere in his remarks about the film's themes, and one wishes this sincerity would have better translated to the screen. The Deleted Scenes with Optional Director Commentary (8:42/HD) are largely superfluous, as are two fluffy featurettes, A Tribute to Teachers (3:47/HD) and The Importance of Education (5:14/HD). The disc also includes the film's theatrical trailer (2:26/HD).
Won't Back Down really struck a nerve with me, and not in a good way. Well meaning but shortsighted, the film tackles the failings of our nation's public education system. Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis team up to revitalize a crappy inner-city school, and Won't Back Down gets in cheap shots at everything from teachers' unions to core curriculum. The film makes every opposing character and organization nefarious, and these players act with such malice and stupidity that the film borders on parody. Skip It.
William lives in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.