“Won’t Back Down” is a Hollywood movie from beginning to end which is both good and bad, more of the former than the latter. The movie goes by the numbers and you know exactly where it is heading, but like “Norma Rae”, “Erin Brockovich” and “Rocky”, you will cry and cheer. Director and screenplay writer, Daniel Barnz, knows he is manipulating you, you know he is and, yet, you will cry when, not one mother, but two mothers confess to their children the wrong they have done them and you will cheer when they come through for their kids.
The film is supposedly based on true events, but they don’t tell where or when, so you have to trust that the screenplay doesn’t go too far afield.. The story is about a mother, Jamie Fitzpatrick (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who has a dyslexic daughter, Malia (Emily Alyn Lind), that she feels is not getting the help needed and, when turning to the principal of the school (Bill Nunn), is told he can’t do anything about it. Malia’s teacher (Nancy Bach) is described as the laziest and highest paid teacher in school but has tenure so nothing can be done. (For the record Nancy Bach is a highly regarded professor in the theatre department of Point Park University.) At the same school is a teacher, Nona Alberts (Viola Davis), recently separated from her husband, who loves to teach but the students aren’t interested in learning. She has a son, Cody (Dante Brown) who is considered‘slow’.
Take a desperate mother, working two jobs and still unable to put her daughter in a private school, a teacher worn down by the system who join to change things and you have the movie “Won’t Back Down”! When you have a stellar cast where Rosie Perez (a teacher) and Holly Hunter--who I did not recognize--(as a union leader), Ving Rhames, as the principal of a charter school ,and Ned Eisenberg (another union leader) are in, basically, throw-away roles you know the acting will help manipulate you. Oh yes, when Jamie tells Michael (Oscar Isaac), a teacher, that he has a cute butt, you know where that is going. Michael also plays the ukulele and teaches his students how to line dance. Later on, when in a bar where Jamie works at night, they get Nona to line dance there will be a smile on your face as Viola Davis looks like she is having a ball.
There is no question that Daniel Barnz blames the state of our schools on the Teacher’s Union even if he gives them a few minutes to give their side as they see things. As a director he makes the lives of his characters, who live in Pittsburgh, realistic but, also, as a director the films runs 3 minutes too long. He had a perfect time to end it and the extra minutes really don’t add to the story except make it run over 2 hours.
“Don’t Back Down” will having you crying, smiling and cheering but, except for the actors, there is nothing new in the story.