From Friday’s Weekend Look section of The Oklahoman.
‘Won’t Back Down’ takes a firm stance on education reform
“Won’t Back Down” is a movie on a mission.
Whatever your politics or views on the hot-button issue of education reform, director Daniel Barnz (“Beastly,” “Penelope in Wonderland”), who co-wrote the film with Brin Hill (“Ball Don’t Lie”), chooses a side and takes a firm stance.
Billed as inspired by true events, the fictional drama clearly supports “parent trigger laws,” which provide mechanisms for parents to intervene if their child’s school underperforms. Such laws are on the books in seven states and are under consideration in many more.
Barnz recruited an A+ cast to carry his inspirational tale. Oscar nominee Maggie Gyllenhaal (“Crazy Heart”) stars as Jamie Fitzpatrick, a single mom who is working two jobs but just can’t keep paying private-school tuition for her 8-year-old daughter Malia (Emily Alyn Lind), who has dyslexia. Jamie has no other choice than to enroll her child in Adams Elementary, their Pittsburgh inner-city neighborhood’s public school, which has a long history of churning out pupils who can’t read, write or add.
Malia ends up struggling under the tutelage of the school’s worst teacher (Nancy Bach), who spends her days lazily texting and online shopping rather than actually instructing the children. Across the hall, Nona Alberts (fellow Oscar nominee Viola Davis, “The Help”) tries hard to engage the students in her equally overcrowded classroom, but it’s apparent that decades of failure have worn away her idealism. With her marriage to her social-climbing husband Charles (Lance Reddick) crumbling and her third-grade son Cody (Dante Brown) struggling with bad grades and bullies, Nona feels too overwhelmed to become the model teacher her late mother was back in the day.
Jamie and Nona cross paths when both enter their children in the lottery for a high-achieving charter school. Neither Malia nor Cody is picked, but Jamie takes the firebrand principal’s (Ving Rhames) speech about fighting for your child’s education to heart. “You know those mothers that lift one-ton trucks off their babies? They’re nothing compared to me,” she warns Adams’ status quo-preserving principal (Bill Nunn).
The status quo, and the bureaucracy that protects it, emerge as the villains of “Won’t Back Down.” As the world-weary school board president (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) warns them, Jamie and Nona first must get the necessary number of parents and teachers behind their proposal, which must be detailed in a 400-page form. Then, they will have to secure an appointment for a hearing to get another hearing in front of the board, whose members will scour it for typos and look for a reason to vote no in between enrolling their own kids in tony private academies.
As the title suggests, though, Jamie “Won’t Back Down,” and once she restores Nona’s idealism, neither will the teacher, who begins the change with her own attitude and in her own classroom.
While teachers’ unions have already taken a strong stand against the film, Barnz, a self-described “Jewish liberal Democrat” who is a union member and comes from a family of teachers and professors, takes care not to make the unions the main bad guy of “Won’t Back Down,” although he certainly doesn’t give them a thumbs-up, either. Bach’s union-protected bad teacher and Arthur Gould’s strident union president who is willing to play dirty to keep Jamie and Nona from setting a precedent are offset by Oscar Isaac’s turn as a talented young music teacher whose personal history makes him a loyal union supporter and Oscar winner Holly Hunter’s small role as a union leader who initially tries to bribe Jamie into quitting her quest but later begins to question the union’s motives.
“Won’t Back Down” is full of characters and subplots and is designed to get people talking and thinking about the vital issue of education reform, whether they agree or disagree with the filmmakers’ stance or conclusions.
Editor’s Note: Walden Media, the producer of “Won’t Back Down,” is a division of The Anschutz Corp., which owns The Oklahoma Publishing Co., publisher of The Oklahoman. Entertainment Writer Brandy McDonnell attended a special preview of the movie for this story.