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Movie review: 'Won't Back Down'

'Won't Back Down' fails to make the grade

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The focus of the save-our-school drama "Won't Back Down" practically assures it will fail to join the ranks of great, or even good, education tales.

The movie takes the story out of the classroom and into the halls of bureaucracy, leaving almost every kid behind to center on two plucky parents battling entrenched administrators and union leaders to turn around a failing school.

So essentially, it's a school board meeting. Or school bored. Despite earnest performances from Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis as a pair of moms leading the fight, "Won't Back Down" lives down to its bland, us-against-them title with a simple-minded assault on the ills of public schools that lumbers along like a math class droning multiplication tables.

Director and co-writer Daniel Barnz ("Beastly") made his feature debut with 2009's "Phoebe in Wonderland," an intimate story of a troubled girl aided by an unconventional teacher. Here, Barnz gets lost in red tape as "Won't Back Down" gives us the inside dope on the teacher's lounge, the union headquarters, the principal-teacher showdown, the hushed halls of the board of education.

Theaters should install glow-in-the-dark versions of those old clunking classroom clocks so viewers can count the agonizing minutes ticking by as they watch the movie.

Prefaced by the generic "inspired by true events" tag, "Won't Back Down" stars Gyllenhaal as single mother Jamie Fitzpatrick, who's desperately trying to get her dyslexic daughter (Emily Alyn Lind) into a better place than John Adams, the dreadful inner-city school she now attends.

Jamie befriends Adams teacher Nona Alberts (Davis), a once-inspired educator worn down by the system and by trouble at home as her marriage crumbles and her son struggles at school himself.

"So you want to start a school with me?" Jamie asks Nona, after learning about a program that allows parents and teachers to huddle up and seize control of failing schools. It's tossed off as casually as if Jamie had said, "Let's put on a show" to raise money for band uniforms, and their jousting with bureaucrats is about as interesting as watching behind-the-scenes preparations for a school fundraiser.

They go door-to-door gathering signatures, they argue with educators fearful of losing their jobs, they encounter union reps whose priority is to protect teachers, both good and bad, with seemingly no consideration for the children.

And it's the children who suffer in "Won't Back Down." Other than some token scenes involving Jamie and Nona's kids, the students are mere extras in a drama that spends most of its time prattling on about how the children are what matter most.

Jamie and Nona face predictable hurdles as virtually everyone schemes to dash their plans. The supporting cast is wasted in shallow roles, among them Rosie Perez and Oscar Isaac as fellow teachers, Ving Rhames as a charter-school principal and Holly Hunter as a conflicted union official.

It's inspiring to hear about parents going all-out to secure a better education for their kids. It's dreary watching them jump through the hoops they face in "Won't Back Down," though. You end up longing for a dose of classroom fireworks — a taste of Sidney Poitier in "To Sir, with Love" or Edward James Olmos in "Stand and Deliver."

"Won't Back Down" is an emotional drop-out by comparison.

"Won't Back Down"
2 stars
Who's in it: Viola Davis, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Holly Hunter, Oscar Isaac
What its' about: Two determined mothers, one a teacher, look to transform their children's failing inner-city school. Facing a powerful and entrenched bureaucracy, they risk everything to make a difference in the education and future of their children.
Rated PG for thematic elements and language.
Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute

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