The Good: Decent concept/message, Moments of character
The Bad: Unimpressive acting, No new information/approaches, Nothing at all superlative.
The Basics: Won’t Back Down has good intentions and a lot of heart, but is essentially a reform story that most viewers have already seen before.
Each year, there are two seasons I look forward to as a film critic. I love Summer Blockbuster Season, even with the schlock, because it is so delightfully mainstream and sometimes a truly great film slips in between the massive budget popcorn flicks. And then there is Oscar Pandering Season. Oscar Pandering Season is what I call the movie releases that have – in the last few years – been dropped in September and late November/all of December. If you look at the history of Oscar nominations from the past three or more years, you might note that the majority of the films nominated for Best Picture are released then because, apparently, Academy nominators are too stupid to remember great films they saw earlier in the year (at least, that appears to be what the studios believe). Oscar Pandering Season is marked by serious dramas that use impressive actors and actresses in roles custom-tailored to get them an Oscar nomination. After a summer of vacuous special effects films, followed by a brief lull populated by all the horror and comedy movies that could never compete with the massive advertizing campaigns of Summer Blockbuster Season, the studios push forth the films they hope will earn them a Best Picture nod and Oscar.
The first such film for Oscar Pandering Season is The Words, but I wasn’t able to get into a screening of that! Instead, last night I attended a screening of Won’t Back Down, a pseudo-controversial education drama that will only open the eyes of the truly ignorant or utterly misinformed. In other words, for those who work in education or who advocate for their child in the public education system, Won’t Back Down offers no new information or approaches.
Malia is a girl who is failing in school because she is unable to read. Her mother, Jamie, is convinced that her daughter can learn, but that the school she attends is not taking the time to actually educate her. When she learns how Malia is being isolated and punished for falling behind, instead of being given opportunities to catch up, Jamie takes matters into her own hands. Her complaints lead her to Nona Alberts, a teacher who spends much of her off-time teaching her own son because the school is failing him as well, despite Nona's marriage falling apart over education-related issues.
Together, Jamie and Nona team up to remove the worst teachers from Adams in an attempt to transform Adams. As they try to unite the neighborhood parents, they run into resistance, though it is nothing compared to the hostility they find at Adams among the teachers, administration, and school board. Fighting for change takes a toll on Jamie personally and Nona professionally, but the pair works to change one failing school in Pittsburgh, against all odds.
Won’t Back Down is not bad, but it is marred by being That Kind Of Movie. From the moment Jamie begins her quest to change Malia’s school – as opposed to giving up and moving Malia to a different school, which is not really an option for the poor mother - Won’t Back Down trends into territory that is far more obvious than audacious. This is not going to be the type of movie where halfway through the film, Jamie gets hit by a tractor trailer truck and the film turns into a euthanasia debate. It’s not the type of movie where the protagonists are going to try, fight the good fight, and fail with no results.
What is frustrating is that Won’t Back Down dilutes its focus with Hollywood clichés. There is a very minor romantic subplot that puts Jamie and one of the teachers in a near-relationship that seems pointless. Won’t Back Down has many of the clichés of the buddy drama as the common struggle between Jamie and Nona leads them to take risks together that are atypical for two people who have known one another so briefly.
On the character front, the title says it all. Won’t Back Down is the story of determination with two women who overcome their frustrations to take on an unjust system. Jamie’s working class background makes her a slight foil to Nona, but makes her determination that Malia will have a better life than she does make sense. Won’t Back Down does this without any real flavor or pizzazz. In other words, Jamie is a pretty generic determined single mother, without any quirks to make her different. Nona is a similarly determined woman whose only real differences from Jamie are the gender of her child and her education level.
Both Maggie Gyllenhaal (Jamie) and Viola Davis (Nona) do a decent job of balancing the two halves of their characters. They are supposed to be both determined and beleaguered and Davis, especially, utilizes her body language to convey exhaustion exceptionally well. Gyllenhaal sells the spunk and determined aspects of Jamie, but does not so much land the gritty qualities one might expect out of a woman of her socioeconomic status. Too often while watching Won’t Back Down, the viewer is aware they are watching Maggie Gyllenhaal as Jamie, as opposed to Jamie. There are moments when Gyllenhaal smiles, for example, that seem oddly out of character for a character as single-minded and focused as Jamie usually is.
The supporting cast in Won’t Back Down is good and Holly Hunter’s antagonistic role might be one of the only ones I have enjoyed her in. The child actors Emily Alyn Lind (Malia) and Dante Brown (Cody) hold their own well in a cast of seasoned adult actors. As Malia struggles with literacy, Lind is convincing with her eye movements and body language in addition to the delivery of her lines.
But ultimately, Won’t Back Down is unremarkable and unsurprising and the struggle in the film is one far too many people live day to day as it is. Like Blood Diamond or V For Vendetta (reviewed here!), Won’t Back Down might be extraordinary if it had the ability to wake up the sleeping masses. But, unlike the characters in the film, I have lost the faith that movies in the United States will actually accomplish real change, or else this problem would have been solved by Waiting For Superman years ago.
For other films about educators, please check out my reviews of:
Here Comes The Boom
For other film reviews, be sure to visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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