Starring Viola Davis, Maggie Gyllenhaal. Written by Brin Hill, Daniel Barnz. Directed by Daniel Barnz. G. 121 min.
A blustery but sometimes convincing drama about concerned parents and teachers who campaign to take control of an ailing elementary school in Pittsburgh, Won’t Back Down is a film with an array of agendas, some more overt than others. The most obvious is inspiring more viewers to engage with the ongoing crisis in American public education, a mission it shares with recent edu-docs like Waiting for Superman. As for one of the less explicit aims, it may also usher in a new wave of earnest dramas named after Tom Petty songs. Sure, it’s going to be a challenge to build a movie out of “Even the Losers,” but “Don’t Do Me Like That” pretty much writes itself.
To confuse matters, Won’t Back Down’s soundtrack favours “Learning to Fly” over the title song for its choice of inspirational Petty anthem. But Daniel Barnz’s film is otherwise admirable for its lack of easy uplift in its efforts to contend with a complex problem, at least until it’s undone by an excess of cornball melodramatics and union-bashing polemical assaults.
It’s also classed up by two very strong lead performances. Played by Maggie Gyllenhaal as a brassy Erin Brockovich type minus the cleavage, Jamie is a working-class single mom who’s determined to find a better situation for her dyslexic daughter than the one at her dire school. Jamie’s pluck invigorates Nona (Viola Davis), a teacher who wants better for her students and her own son than indifferent classes taught by “checked-out zombies” who only care about their paycheques. Their noble campaign to take over the school is nearly derailed by a nasty counter-offensive by the teachers’ union, which the movie portrays in such villainous terms that the ghost of Ayn Rand deserves a co-writing credit.
Nevertheless, the social-issue drama of any political stripe has become such a rare species in Hollywood cinema that Won’t Back Down is weirdly fascinating. At its grittiest, it might even pass for a descendant of ‘70s rabble-rousers like Norma Rae, albeit without any of the cusswords or adult content that might’ve muddied the wholesome image of the new film’s backer, Walden Media. And though its take on the topic is ultimately too simplistic, Gyllenhaal and Davis so strongly convey their characters’ terror of failing their kids, Won’t Back Down has the potency of a horror movie for grown-ups.