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Maggie Gyllenhaal in 'Won't Back Down' takes on public schools

'Won't Back Down': a hot-button topic, but too many holes.

By Peter RainerFilm critic / September 28, 2012

Maggie Gyllenhaal (r.) and Viola Davis (l.) star in 'Won't Back Down.'

Kerry Hayes/20th Century Fox/AP

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“Won’t Back Down” is about two mothers who go up against a failing inner-city school in Pittsburgh, and it opens with the inevitable “inspired by a true story” preamble. This is supposed to give the movie the patina of being “more” than a movie, although it’s not clear what “true story” it’s actually “inspired” by. The film, directed and co-written by Daniel Barnz, is being positioned as an education-reform version of “Norma Rae,” except here it’s the unions that get tarred.

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Maggie Gyllenhaal is Jamie Fitzpatrick, a rowdy single mother who works two jobs and is fed up with the way her dyslexic 8-year-old daughter, Malia (Emily Alyn Lind), is being educated. Malia’s iPhone-toting instructor (Nancy Bach), who might as well be wearing a sign reading “Bad Teacher,” explains to Jamie that union rules prevent her from helping Malia after class. Jamie’s attempts to get her daughter transferred to the class of Good Teacher Nona Alberts (Viola Davis), whose own son is failing in school, are stonewalled by the smirky school principal (Bill Nunn).

In desperation, Jamie spearheads a movement to create a new nonunion charter school by rounding up signatures from parents and teachers. Nona gradually gets with the program and, together with Jamie, rallies the troops for what is, in effect, an enactment of the much-touted “parent trigger” law.

The failings of the education system in this country, for which there is plenty of blame to go around, are self-evident. “Won’t Back Down” exploits an outrage that many in the audience experience on a daily basis. But the film’s clarion call, aided by terrific, full-out performances by Gyllenhaal and Davis, is hampered by simplifications and distortions. The film’s heart is certainly in the right place. Not so, always, its head.

This movie manifesto is based on a number of dubious or erroneous claims, starting with the idea that unions prevent teachers from giving their students extra help after class. Or that parent-trigger laws allow teachers to vote for their passage. This latter criticism is more than academic, since the crux of the film is about Jamie and Nona rounding up teachers to do the right thing.

It’s one thing to complain that a movie about, say, time travel, violates reason. But “Won’t Back Down” (coproduced by Walden Media, also one of the producers of the pro-charter documentary “Waiting for Superman”) is pushing real-world solutions, and so it needs to be looked at in real-world ways. One doesn’t have to be a barricade-manning union organizer or a board member of the American Federation of Teachers to recognize that the few attempts to enact a parent-trigger law in this country have been misfires, or that charter schools, statistically, do not do an appreciably better job of educating students.

The message of “Won’t Back Down,” which doesn’t even feature so much as a PTA meeting, is that as concerned parents and citizens we can’t wait to figure this education mess out. We’ve got to start someplace. Students must be served first. The movie pays lip service to the countrywide “pandemic of union busting,” to quote the film’s teachers union honcho (Ned Eisenberg), but there’s a dutiful quality to these pro-union interludes, as if they were in the movie to guarantee equal time. Holly Hunter, as another union executive, sympathizes with Jamie; her regretful eyes express nostalgia for a better time. Even Jamie’s ukelele-strumming Pied Piper-like teacher boyfriend (Oscar Isaac), a union stalwart, eventually sees the light.

Hollywood has never been the best arena to hash out policy debates. But social-issue movies can have real societal impact. That’s why “Won’t Back Down,” which presses a lot of hot buttons, deserves to be taken seriously, and criticized seriously, on its own terms. Grade: B- (Rated PG for thematic elements and language.)

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