Title: Won’t back Down
Starring: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Holly Hunter and Marianne Jean-Baptiste
Parents will often do whatever it takes to protect their children and ensure they’ll have a promising future, even when others try to discourage them. That’s certainly the case in the new drama ‘Won’t Back Down,’ which shows the tribulations parents go through to ensure their children have the best education they can. Single mother Jamie Fitzpatrick relentlessly enlists the help of one of the teachers in her daughter’s school to overturn the current, failing administration, despite the objections of teachers who fear the loss of their union will threaten their job.
‘Won’t Back Down’ follows Jamie (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who works as a bartender and auto secretary in Pittsburgh, as she discovers her dyslexic daughter, Malia (Emily Alyn Lind), has been placed with one of the worst teachers in her elementary school, John Adams. Jamie is determined to take her daughter out of John Adams, which is one of the lowest-rated schools in the city, so that she can have a chance at a better future. Jamie seeks the help of one of the teachers at John Adams, Nona Alberts (Viola Davis), who is one of the school’s few instructors who still cares about the students and their futures.
Nona reluctantly agrees to help Jamie take on Evelyn Riske (Holly Hunter), Olivia Lopez (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) and the rest of the Teachers Association of Pennsylvania, or TAP, in order to help her son, Cody (Dante Brown), who also has a learning disorder. To the initial dismay of the fellow parents and teachers, who fear going against the union and threatening their jobs, Jamie and Nona eventually ignite a movement to re-launch the school with a new progressive program.
One of the other teachers who is initially hesitant to go against the union, but ultimately decides to aids Jamie, is music teacher Michael Perry (Oscar Isaac). The two form a bond as they look for ways that will be beneficial to the teachers, but more importantly, the students.
Gyllenhaal and Davis were well-cast in their respective roles, as they both understood their characters’ maternal drive to not only protect their own children, but all of the students in John Adams as well. Jamie and Nona both have doubts at times whether they’re doing what’s best for Malia and Cody, especially after being regularly questioned by the other parents, teachers and TAP over whether relaunching the school would truly benefit the students. Even when Evelyn offers Jamie a scholarship for Malia to attend a top-tier private school, and the community attacks Nona’s character for an accident she was responsible for that involved Cody, the actresses both gave realistic portrayals of determined mothers who would stop at nothing to ensure the school and union was acting in the best interest of all the students.
The two Academy Award-nominated actresses also had a believable bond with each other throughout the course of ‘Won’t Back Down.’ Gyllenhaal’s natural assumption of a mother who doesn’t allow economics or idle political threats stand in her way of protecting her daughter believably drew out Davis’ memorable portrayal of a mother who learns to overcome her fears to do what’s best for her son. Jamie’s take-charge attitude and leadership skills perfectly complement Nona’s comforting nature, which the actresses use to make their characters’ mission heart-felt.
Unfortunately, filmmaker Daniel Barnz, who directed and co-wrote ‘Won’t Back Down’ with fellow scribe Brin Hill, took away from Gyllenhaal and Davis’ insightful performances by crafting a story that regularly thrived on the emotions stirred up by school politics. The drama regularly shuns school unions, and questions whether teacher security is necessary and beneficial to helping students learn. While Jamie and Nona do have good points that teachers should be regularly evaluated on how helpful they are to helping their students, and unions can thwart students’ potential if they solely focus on teachers’ rights, the film at times feels as though it’s advocating that parents know more about how to run a school than the administrators. While Michael does inform Jamie of the good unions have done for protecting teachers’ rights, his views are often pushed aside to once again focus on Jamie’s weariness of the school board, and serve as a martyr for the children.
‘Won’t Back Down’ has been criticized by educators, who feel that it supports well-funded advocates of privatizing America’s education system and parent trigger laws that aim to transform under-performing public schools. At times, the drama does feel as though it supports the two controversial right-wing organizations, the American Legislative Exchange Council and the Heartland Institute, who launched the first parent trigger initiative in California, which aimed to cure what ails public schools in the U.S. But the empathetic performances by Gyllenhaal and Davis show that when parents are determined to protect their children and refuse to give up on implementing what’s right to protect all students, positive change is possible.
Written by: Karen Benardello