A dyslexic second-grade girl is staring at the words on the chalkboard, struggling to sound out the syllables. Her teacher and classmates are distracted, and at the end of the school day the girl is sent home, still unable to read.
This scene from director Daniel Barnz’s film, “Won’t Back Down,” illustrates the problem with the public school systems in Pittsburgh: Teacher union contracts keep the bad teachers in the system, and children are going to school without getting an education.
“Won’t Back Down” channels this message by following Jamie Fitzpatrick (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a single mother working two jobs to support her daughter, Malia (Emily Alyn Lind). As Malia struggles to read without the support of the teachers or school, Jamie recruits fellow parents and teachers, such as Nona Alberts (Viola Davis), to start a new school without teacher unions.
Writers Brin Hill and Daniel Barnz try to tackle a complicated subject matter with a trite script. The two-hour movie ties the complicated issue up too tidily with a happy, Hollywood ending. Meanwhile, the movie seems to polarize the issue of education, showing how unions and public schools are failing while charter schools and privatization further their educational standards.
Despite the movie’s obvious agenda, one of the strengths of the movie is its acting. Viola Davis, known for her performance in the Oscar Award-winning film, “The Help,” presents another emotionally charged performance. In one scene, Davis reveals a mistake she made as a mother to her son, Cody (Dante Brown). Cody forgives her by responding, “If you want to lie down next to me, that would be OK.” Not only does this moving scene between mother and son evoke an emotional response from the viewer, the scene also proves Davis’ prowess as an actress as well as young Brown’s potential.
Gyllenhaal also gives a decent performance as a concerned mother starting a petition because she is invested in her daughter’s education. In one of the more powerful scenes of the movie, Malia tells Jamie that she doesn’t want to grow up “poor and stupid” like her mother.
While “Won’t Back Down” does have its moments, which showcase Davis’ and Gyllenhaal’s acting abilities, the resolved ending makes the movie forgettable, even when there may still be problems within the public school’s system.
It is clear that “Won’t Back Down” is a movie with a message, and at the end of the day many viewers will still be reading between the lines.
“Won’t Back Down” was directed by Daniel Barnz and written by Barnz and Brin Hill. To view this review in The Ithacan, click here.