By Roger Moore
There’s nothing more alarming to power than people organizing themselves to usurp that power.
Even if that power is a union, an organization founded to protect the many from the abuses and whims of the few.
That’s the message of “Won’t Back Down,” an inspiring story of a working-class parent hellbent on doing right by her child, and a once-idealistic teacher who reluctantly joins her in an effort to remake their school from a chronic failure that breeds chronic failures into a place that gives its kids a fighting chance.
Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis put on an acting clinic as single mom Jamie and struggling teacher Nona. They use Pennsylvania’s school “fail-safe” law to “change the culture” at their Pittsburgh school, “expecting more” of their children, the kids’ parents and the teachers who instruct them.
Jamie (Gyllenhaal) is a working-class mom, holding down two jobs and fretting over her daughter Malia (Emily Alyn Lind, radiant), a child with learning issues and a teacher who checked out years ago. One look at teacher texting in class and the principal (Bill Nunn) who barely pays attention to her concerns has Jamie convinced Adams Elementary needs to change. Because she can’t afford private school and or to move to a better district.
She wants her daughter in Nona’s (Davis) class, where, despite bureaucracy, tradition, state requirements and union rules, Jamie spies the glint of a teacher who still cares, who remembers the crowded funeral where former students wept at the death of her own teacher-mother.
Oscar Isaac, having a break-out fall (“10 Years”) plays Michael, a ukulele-playing idealist who “just wants to teach.” He grew up seeing unions as a force for good, especially in schools.
Holly Hunter is the union boss who understands that they’ve failed to get ahead of this idea that failing schools cannot be allowed to continue to fail simply to protect jobs, tenure and pensions.
“Won’t Back Down” is a well-directed and edited film that gives most of its cast moments to shine and takes advantage of the mercurial Maggie G. and fiery Davis. Daniel Barnz, who also co-wrote this “inspired by a true story” with Brin Hill, pays attention to the greater complexity here. Arrogant, political and reluctant-to-act school boards, exhausted or apathetic parents who don’t want to add 20 hours of work to their week helping their kids, they all contribute to a school’s failure.
Ned Eisenberg, playing the union chief, gets to nicely summarize the feeling that organized working people are “under assault” from anti-labor governors and their big business backers, from states like Wisconsin and institutions like the National Football League.
As complex as this simple tale tries to be, it can’t overcome the “rules” of its genre and many of the over-generalizations of the hyped documentary “Waiting for Superman.” These stories are never set in the failing schools of rural states where teachers and teacher’s unions have little power against the caprices of backward state and local school boards.
Still, the big moments work, the big scenes pay off and the big emotions are earned in this plucky movie about people realizing that they can make a difference. The message is as American as “This Land is Your Land.” Don’t get mad. Get organized.
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