Review: ‘Won’t Back Down’ Is a Forward and Upbeat Message Film With Earnest Performances

By  · Published on September 28th, 2012

The public school system-targeted message drama Won’t Back Down is a kind of war film. It opens on a hazy classroom scene in which a little girl is attempting to read a sentence on the blackboard as her fellow grunts are half-dying (learning-wise) around her. The sound is muffled, as if a bomb has just gone off and the blast has damaged the characters’ hearing. Machine gun fire is heard nearby, from another student’s video game. Their leader is preoccupied with her own life and useless to them. The enemy that the girl is currently up against is the word “story.”

If that’s not a baited call for criticism with the film’s own story… And indeed it’s a fitting moment, but not because the story is badly told so much as the children get lost in it. The film recognizes that there is an education war going on, with revolutionary parents battling powerful teachers unions, and it’s the children stuck in the trenches, caught in the crossfire. But at the same time, Won’t Back Down is not really about the kids, either.

Written by Daniel Barnz and Brin Hill and directed by Barnz (Beastly), the film claims to be based on a true story, though all that means is that it’s inspired by parent trigger laws passed in California and other states (not including Pennsylvania, where the movie is set), through which parents are allowed to take over a failing public school and turn it into a charter school. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays a single mom leading the campaign for the pointedly named John Adams Elementary, where her dyslexic daughter’s reading troubles are ignored by a tenured teacher.

Costumed youthfully but not overly titillating (maybe the shiny tight black pants are a bit distracting), Gyllenhaal’s uneducated and unsophisticated Jamie Fitzpatrick comes off as the Erin Brockovich of education, throwing herself into the cause while juggling the kid, two jobs and a new romance with a hot, pro-labor teacher at John Adams (Oscar Isaac). After her daughter fails to win a spot in a charter school lottery, Jamie connects with another teacher, a once-idealistic woman (Viola Davis) who had chosen to work at John Adams because it was the most in need, only to find it unrepairable, and the mission begins.

As they venture through the bureaucracy of the board of education, face the challenge of appealing to other John Adams parents and educators (including Rosie Perez) and become target of smear campaigns by the local union, the head of which exclaims they’re under attack and so must strike back, the war rages on until the final showdown occurs in an assembly hall overwhelmingly dominated by a mural of Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln. That the final vote on the fate of the school comes down to a slow-speaking elderly man ultimately turns the film into the equivalent of an underdog sports movie where the potential winning shot/goal is stretched out in slow motion.

Barnz and Hill definitely take sides on the issue, along with production brand Walden Media, which previously had a hand in the relevant documentary Waiting for “Superman,” but cinematically there’s nothing wrong with it vilifying teachers unions as money-driven organizations that don’t think of the children anymore than it’s wrong for any movies to have villains of any sort. Whether you disagree with the political agenda or message is on you rather than on the film as a film, though it is worth acknowledging that uncompromising union supporters may not enjoy this fictional drama as much as those against or mildly critical of them.

Won’t Back Down is very pronounced in its leanings, even if there is an attempt made with Isaac’s character to address the complicated issue with teachers unions and also recognize that labor unions overall are not a bad thing. It’s the little things in the movie, however, that provide a greater atmosphere of our general attitude on jobs, careers, professions, etc., these days, which might be the bigger issue. Among the expressions of entitlement and lack of motivation is a mug on a non-character’s desk reading “My job is secure – No one else wants it!” and another individual airing out her positivity based on it being casual Friday and another claiming she never drank before starting her current government position.

Much of that work ethic stuff plays into the message, as Jamie is constantly in danger of losing her own day job due to her devotion to her cause, and the implication is that her lack of job security has made her a stronger worker for the most part as well as someone who can stay true and passionate for something more fulfilling than a paycheck. Still, at points the film near-contradictorily celebrates Jamie’s character for not being well-educated while portraying a sneakily antagonistic union leader played by Holly Hunter as pretentiously emphasizing her educated guess and telling the younger woman to “let professionals be the professionals.”

The film winds up too much in the hands of the adults and their views on what’s best for the children – even outside of the schools, there are scenes specifically stressing differences in parenting – but then, it’s not like kids can do much within systems like this, right? Well, one thing that education system documentaries such as Waiting for “Superman” and The Lottery have done better is allowing more of the children’s perspectives to shine through (regardless of whether you think that’s exploitative).

On top of that, nonfiction works offer more of the kind of information that is needed for a film with an agenda, and it will be interesting to see how an upcoming documentary on parent trigger laws, We the Parents, handles the issue differently. Maybe it will similarly hit us with dramatic manipulation, an overreaching score and thematically emphasizing cutaways, but will it have a meet-cute involving the miscommunicated wordplay of “badass” and “nice ass”?

The Upside: Gyllenhaal and Davis are more than serviceable in their lead performances and appropriately never seem to be there just for the paycheck or burdened by the fact that the issue has the true starring role.

The Downside: The last line in the film, which calls back to the opening scene, is excruciatingly on the nose.

On the Side: The title comes from the Tom Petty song “I Won’t Back Down,” which plays during the end credits. One of the film’s previous titles was “Learning to Fly,” also the name of a Petty tune, and that one plays over a central scene.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.