Grounded in the belief that there are few things sadder than seeing a child say “I can’t,” heavy-handed inspirational drama “Won’t Back Down” centers on a group of parents who organize to take control of their kids’ failing elementary school. Grossly oversimplifying the issue at hand, writer-director Daniel Barnz’s disingenuous pot-stirrer plays to audiences’ emotions rather than their intelligence, offering meaty roles for Maggie Gyllenhaal as a determined single mom, and Viola Davis as the good egg among a rotten batch of teachers, while reducing everyone else to cardboard characterizations. Absent high-profile champions, femme-centric pic could suffer from low attendance.
Taking the public for dummies, “Won’t Back Down” dramatizes the least interesting part of its underlying true story — a fictional amalgam of national “parent trigger” law cases, by which concerned local majorities can oust the administration of underperforming public schools and replace them with charter operations.
On one hand, this approach successfully manages to tug heartstrings by positioning overworked young mom Jamie Fitzpatrick (Gyllenhaal) as the Erin Brockovich of education, cheerleading her uphill battle against bureaucracy. But it leaves off just where the real conflict begins: with a courtroom victory putting the passengers in control of the plane, to borrow a cautionary analogy from the film itself, never establishing how they will operate — or fund — the new system.
Working two jobs, as a car-dealership secretary and bartender, Jamie has her hands full just trying to provide for her second-grade daughter, Malia (wonderfully expressive Emily Alyn Lind). At Malia’s previous school, the teachers would stay after class to help her practice reading, but not at Adams Elementary. There, union rules state that school ends at 3 p.m., in addition to protecting comparatively overpaid deadbeats like Deborah (Nancy Bach), who couldn’t be any more irresponsible if she were swinging a chainsaw around in class.
For Gyllenhaal, the role marks a return to “Sherrybaby” mode, playing a well-meaning but overwhelmed mother teetering on just this side of white trash. In early scenes, Jamie is shown sweetening her instant coffee with Diet Coke and struggling to get Malia to school on time, but rather than judging her failings as a parent, the film asks auds to identify with her position.
As depicted, the system is inherently unfair and evidently designed to leave most students behind. Convinced that not all Adams teachers are awful (and noticing that the one played by Oscar Isaac has a nice butt), Jamie petitions the ambivalent principal (Bill Nunn) to put Malia in another class. She even enters her daughter’s name in a lottery for an idyllic-sounding charter school where a charismatic role model (Ving Rhames) encourages the parents to take matters into their own hands.
When the three free slots go to other kids, however, Jamie has no choice but to take her case to the school board, where a kindly receptionist (Lucia Forte) offhandedly introduces the solution in a scene that plays like a casual-recommendation aspirin commercial. Enlisting burned-out but well-meaning Nona Alberts (Davis) and studly Michael Perry (Isaac) from among the Adams staff, Jamie begins her petition to win over parents and teachers according to the Norma Rae model — that is, if Norma Rae were anti-union.
In fact, the union issue poses perhaps the touchiest aspect of “Won’t Back Down’s” already tricky politics, and the film tries to acknowledge the merits of organized labor (namely, job security for one of America’s most undercompensated professions) without swaying from its generally simplistic attitude toward the situation’s ostensible villains, including union spin-doctor Evelyn Riske (Holly Hunter).
Over the span of three features — the other two being Elle Fanning starrer “Phoebe in Wonderland” and prep school-based “Beastly” — director Barnz has unofficially established himself as Hollywood’s resident bard of education, though this is the first in which he takes a stand on schooling itself. The film, co-written with Brin Hill, marks a break from the well-established tradition of inspirational-teacher movies, instead making the argument that America’s schools are clogged with instructors who simply don’t make the grade.
The effective part of the pic’s message is that no one wants kids to receive a poor education, but that a complex bureaucracy of standards and laws and so forth have a soul-crushing effect on the idealists who dedicate themselves to teaching. Whether a parent-controlled school (as opposed to one in which parents are simply more involved) offers any sort of real solution remains unproven, though the script sees change alone as reason for hope.
Inexplicably color-timed to look like a horror movie, the high-contrast footage tries to suggest a level of grit otherwise missing from the material — sometimes in direct contrast with d.p. Roman Osin’s elegant long takes and Marcelo Zarvos’ stirring score. Barnz gets great performances from Davis’ onscreen son, Dante Brown, and Lind, but not the Pittsburgh extras, who look a little too happy just to be oncamera.