Review: 'Won't Back Down' simply doesn't stand up

Viola Davis, left, and Maggie Gyllenhaal play parents in Won’t Back Down.

20th Century Fox

Viola Davis, left, and Maggie Gyllenhaal play parents in Won’t Back Down.

Immediately after Won't Back Down happily ended I was hoping for a sequel. You know, a movie describing how this miraculous turnaround of a failing inner city elementary school happens. Certainly it must involve more than ukulele sing-alongs and pretty art projects but that's all the movie naively suggests.

Won't Back Down is more concerned with spreading blame for America's education woes, with its anger focused on school boards and teacher unions protecting poor employees. As a former public school teacher, I'll agree that happens but I'm not convinced it happens as cancerously as director and co-writer Daniel Barnz insists.

Barnz gives lip service to equally accountable factions — poverty, bureaucracy and uncaring parents. Yet he nullifies their effects by building a story around two struggling parents with abnormal patience and perseverance to see underachieving children succeed. Ads for Won't Back Down claim the movie is "inspired by actual events" but so are a lot of horror flicks intended to scare viewers out of their wits.

Consider the actual events in question: Two cases in California when enough petition signatures were obtained to invoke a "parent trigger" law, turning public schools into charter programs operated by for-profit agencies, free of government and union regulation. One case was dropped and the other is proceeding. (A parent trigger bill died in Florida's Senate in March.)

Charter schools were the subject of last year's documentary Waiting for Superman, which extolled the system's virtues without explaining exactly what they do differently from public schools. I wrote then that the filmmakers should have given viewers a peek inside the lesson plans, perhaps inspiring a mediocre teacher to try something new. That movie and Won't Back Down are both produced by Walden Media, with the same fatalism about public schools.

Barnz never mentions parent triggers (it's called a fail-safe law here) or tuition-funded charter schools (although one is shown, looking magical as Oz). But the former is what the parents played by Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis invoke, and the latter must be the solution skipped before the happy ending. Where else would the money come from to pay teachers and update materials, on the poverty side of Pittsburgh?

The inherent falseness of Won't Back Down may only be bothersome if you've done your homework. Likely more viewers will buy into the Erin Brockovich-style spunk Gyllenhaal provides, and the performance by Davis, an actor so emotional that even her nose cries on cue. It's not a bad movie, if you're inclined to be manipulated by impromptu romance and rousing changes of heart.

I'm not, but I can appreciate the feelings of those who are. Go see Won't Back Down and enjoy it. Just don't believe it's anything more than a stacked deck with a lot at stake.

Steve Persall can be reached at persall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365.

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Won't Back Down

Director: Daniel Barnz

Cast: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Oscar Isaac, Holly Hunter, Rosie Perez, Emily Alyn Lind, Dante Brown, Lance Reddick, Bill Nunn, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Ving Rhames

Screenplay: Brin Hill, Daniel Barnz

Rating: PG; profanity

Running time: 118 min.

Grade: C

Review: 'Won't Back Down' simply doesn't stand up 09/27/12 [Last modified: Thursday, September 27, 2012 6:37pm]

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