Presenting the issue of school reform in a binary light, this movie calls for parents and teachers to agitate for a stronger curriculum and make sure that no student gets left behind. It suggests that some teachers often forget why they’ve entered the field of education in the workplace and start expecting less from their students before they eventually give up on them. The movie appeals to viewers’ sentiments by citing some veritable statistics about how the prison industry utilizes standardized test scores of low performing elementary schools to determine how many prison cells to build.
Jamie Fitzpatrick (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a single mom who works as a receptionist and as a bartender to make ends meet, is forced to send her daughter Malia (Emily Alyn Lind) to Adams Elementary, a public school that has been failing for two decades. Instead of attending to the students’ needs, Adams Elementary has been passing students that can barely read or do arithmetic. These students end up dropping out of high school and give up on higher education. Due to poor academic support and unsympathetic teachers that abuse tenure, Malia still struggles to read. After failing to make the lottery for the local charter school, Jamie decides that she cannot wait any longer for change. She learns about the Fail-Safe Act, which allows parents and teachers to take over and redesign failing schools.
Meanwhile, Nona Alberts (Viola Davis), an Adams teacher who used to dream of transforming her students’ lives, has nearly given up in her classroom. To make matters worse, her son is also struggling in school, and her marriage has fallen apart. When Jamie encounters Nona at the charter school lottery night, she asks Nona to start a school with her. Nona dusts off the old lesson plans she had for her students and starts sharing them with Jamie. The two women must submit a 400 page proposal to the school board for approval during a public hearing. They need to acquire signatures from 400 parents and 18 teachers.
The film vilifies unions as basking in their past glory and refusing to acknowledge serious inequalities in the educational sector. Other teachers are reluctant to sign on because they seek protection from the Teachers Association of Pennsylvania, and the union does everything in its power to discourage parents and teachers from supporting this plan. The union proceeds to lead smear campaigns about particular members of this reform movement and scare parents into rejecting the takeover.
While the film encourages parents, teachers, and students to reclaim agency over youth education, it sentimentalizes and simplifies the problem at hand. Antagonists such as Malia’s teacher and the union executives deliver unabashedly hostile monologues. This makes it difficult to take these characters seriously. Furthermore, a few motivational speeches and talks from the underdogs prove to be sufficient for changing the opposing teachers’ minds and renovating a fundamentally broken system. Everything depends on these ladies winning over the hearts and minds of parents, teachers, and the majority of the bureaucrats. The solution just appears too easy and idealistic at times. Of course, most Hollywood dramas do not (and are not obligated to) provide real-life solutions. They can, however, draw certain emotional responses and even shed light on some issues, albeit in a mawkish and melodramatic way. But in my estimation, when filmmakers lean too heavily on this convention, their message is lost, and we are left with an empty film that glad-hands itself for two hours without making any real impact. That is what we have here.
Fortunately, despite the lack of deftness in providing a subtle, yet relatable message, this film does a great job depicting character development of the two protagonists, Jamie and Nona. While Jamie initially starts this campaign to secure better education for her daughter, she realizes that they must dismantle a system that is leaving behind thousands of other children. She charms parents, teachers, and even viewers into joining her cause. Nona begins to reexamine her complacency and remembers why she chose to be a teacher in the first place—to inspire and motivate her students to do their very best. Nona realizes that they must set higher expectations for the students in order for them to achieve their full potential. Each of these characters stand well on their own and also act as inspiring foils for each other and for the audience.
Won’t Back Down may alienate some audiences as it poses a simplistic black-and-white view of the political aspects of this issue, blaming elitist bureaucrats of the union and school board. Unlike previous movies about fighting for better education, it focuses on parents and teachers forming a grassroots movement to combat the larger bureaucracy. This film will captivate viewers that appreciate drama and rooting for the protagonist(s) every step of the way. This film may be too melodramatic and long for young audiences, but will resonate with those that are interested in policy that deals with educational matters.