School choice advocates praise “Won’t Back Down,” a film inspired by actual events, as clear evidence that parents and teachers should have the freedom to take over and transform failing schools. Teachers union proponents paint it as an assault on teacher pay and job security. And movie critics accuse filmmakers of skimming over serious issues facing American schools and classrooms.
But “Won’t Back Down” is more than a treatise on competing education philosophies. It’s a tale of two mothers who want the very best for all children, including their own. Though the story takes place in mostly school-related settings, many of the film’s characters would take similar actions in the face of any bureaucracy that threatened a child’s well-being — such as a health care system in which outcomes for kids with cancer varied according to the quality of their doctor or treatment center. Issues of school choice are there, but shouldn’t be mistaken for the heart of the film.
Instead, “Won’t Back Down” is an exploration of the collective and individual journeys taken by two women in person, parent and professional mode. Nona Alberts (Viola Davis) is a public school teacher whose misery at seeing her son struggle with homework and bullies is multiplied by a choice made long ago and complicated by her husband Charles’ (Lance Reddick) decision to leave her. Jamie Fitzpatrick (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is single mother to a daughter with dyslexia who’s despised by students and teacher alike while struggling to read aloud in class.
Fitzpatrick answers phones at a car dealership where her sales skills are grossly underutilized. At night, she’s got a bartender gig that helps to hone the chutzpah needed to enlist others in the fight once Fitzpatrick learns that taking over her child’s failing school is an option. Alberts is her first reluctant recruit, followed by a ukelele-playing Teach for America alumnus named Michael Perry (Oscar Isaac) who’s torn between his loyalty to the teachers union and his idealism about bringing more creativity to the classroom.
If all politics is local, then all ideology is personal. “Won’t Back Down” reminds us that people tend to adopt positions rooted in their own personal histories. When Evelyn Riske (Holly Hunter), a woman sympathetic to the parents’ plight, hesitates to defy her pro-union boss and embrace the transformation of Adams Elementary, it’s because her father was a pioneer in the labor union movement. When school board chairman Olivia Lopez (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) is tempted to upset the apple cart by siding with pro-takeover parents just a week before retirement, she imagines having a legacy beyond a life spent saying “no.”
“Won’t Back Down” was written by Brin Hill and the movie’s director, Daniel Barnz. The best dialogue comes in short, swift tidbits easily overlooked amidst more sweeping treatments of topics from literacy to incarceration rates. Think Viola Davis reflecting on her status as “the first black Stepford wife.” Sometimes no dialogue is needed. Picture Davis line dancing with an expression of unleashed joy long before her character knows whether the fight will be won or lost.
The movie’s most profound moments are found in pauses by characters steeped silently in seering pain — Alberts’ realization that empty hangers in the coat closet signal her husband’s decision to give up on their marriage, Fitzgerald’s stoic demeanor while her daughter hurls ugly insults whose gravity viewers don’t grasp until later revelations about the mother’s own childhood.
As Fitzgerald and Alberts fight for the right to help create a better school, their children look on. When offered a solution far simpler than transforming an entire school, Fitzgerald weighs the obvious benefits against the risks of selling out in front of daughter Malia (Emily Alyn Lind). When faced with character assassination, Alberts is forced to share a painful part of her past before son Cody (Dante Brown) hears it from others. Sometimes even kids with closed eyes are more aware than we realize, a fact beautifully conveyed in a turn-the-tables bedtime moment between mother and son.
“Won’t Back Down” is filled with messages. Students with special needs deserve more help and respect. There’s diversity even among those who share the same side of an issue. Children blossom in schools filled with rich visual and performing arts experiences. No profession thrives when poor performance is rewarded. People with ideological differences often have more in common than they realize. Our education system is broken, and the time to fix it is now. But those who never look beyond these issues miss the film’s deeper theme of forgiveness for self and others.
“Won’t Back Down,” released nationwide on Friday by 20th Century Fox, is rated PG and runs two hours.