Movie review: School of harsh knocks portrayed in 'Won't Back Down'

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Everything you need to know about the ultimate bad teacher is telegraphed in the opening scenes of "Won't Back Down."

She's sitting in front of her class fiddling with her phone, her computer screen flashing a shopping site for footwear. Her tone with a struggling student is a mixture of disinterest and disdain, and when the child's mother mentions possible after-school help, the teacher says, "School's over at 3," so she's outta there.

'Won't Back Down'

2 stars = Mediocre
Ratings explained
  • Starring: Viola Davis, left, and Maggie Gyllenhaal.
  • Rating: PG for thematic elements and language.

Welcome to a movie that bashes unions in an effort to heighten drama and make a case for two mothers -- one white and lower class, one African-American and middle class -- to take over their failing school. The acting, especially by Viola Davis as a second-generation teacher who has lost her passion amid a stressful family life, is laudable, the story less so.

"Won't Back Down," filmed in Pittsburgh in 2011, is about a fictional public school in the Hill District called Adams Elementary, "where education goes to die," one disillusioned instructor says. It's where Nona (Ms. Davis) teaches and Jamie (Maggie Gyllenhaal) has reluctantly transferred her daughter, a second-grader.


Jamie works two jobs but no longer can afford the tuition at the private school her child previously attended. She cannot move or mandate her child's shift to another classroom or school and, as her options dwindle, hears about something called the "fail-safe law," which prompts her to ask Nona, "You wanna take over the school with me?"

The fail-safe law is an apparent stand-in for California's 2010 parent-trigger law allowing parents in a failing school to force changes, convert it to a charter school or close it. It's since become a model for other states.

The movie proclaims "Inspired by actual events," but that's a few steps removed from "based on real events." It or its publicity material makes no mention of what those actual events are, but it has kicked a hornets' nest with its portrayal of teachers, unions and even the few school administrators shown.

They are obstructionists or villains, and the union takes it on the chin, despite the conflicted leader played by Holly Hunter, whose parents organized a textile mill down South. Yes, any subliminal connection to "Norma Rae" is intended.

"Won't Back Down" features plenty of Pirates, Penguins and Steelers paraphernalia along with a ride on the Duquesne Incline and views of Heinz Field from across the river and Downtown looming over the Hill.

Ms. Davis, fresh from her Oscar-nominated turn in "The Help," is superb as always as a woman who rejuvenates before our eyes. Ms. Gyllenhaal is wild-eyed and peripatetic at the start, in an off-putting way, but she provides emotion and heart as she tries to ensure a better life for her daughter, nicely played by Emily Alyn Lind.

The cast also includes Oscar Isaac and Rosie Perez as fellow teachers; Lance Reddick as Nona's husband and Dante Brown as their son; Marianne Jean-Baptiste as chair of the "Western Pennsylvania School Board"; and Bill Nunn and Ving Rhames as school principals with opposite attitudes.

Director and co-writer Daniel Barnz shot at a number of local schools, including Allderdice, Community Day, Shaler Area Elementary and now-closed Letsche and Miller city buildings, according to the Pittsburgh Film Office.

Maybe the movie is designed to promote charter schools, maybe not, but it's lopsided and lays it on thick, whether giving Nona a painful secret or making the laziest, highest paid teacher retaliate against the reformers by refusing a child a restroom break. It also skips over key, thorny chapters in the march to school takeover.

The odds are stacked in such a way that moviegoers of course would root for the women, and we even get the Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers' tune "I Won't Back Down." But you may walk away with as many questions and quibbles as the intended inspiration.


Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: or 412-263-1632. Read her blog: First Published September 28, 2012 4:00 AM


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