Malia (Emily Alyn Lind) can’t read. You know this because she first appears in Won’t Back Down in painful, terrible, awful close-up, trying to read a sentence on her classroom blackboard. As she pauses on each and every word, the camera cuts briefly to her classmates sniggering and her teacher distracted by her cellphone. Malia’s in agony. Something must be done.
Enter her fierce, hardworking single mom, Jamie (Maggie Gyllenhaal). A receptionist at a Pittsburgh auto dealer and a Penguins fan, Jamie determines to change Malia’s situation: first, she tries to get her moved to another class. While the principal (Bill Nunn) suggests she try a remedial class (Malia, like her mom, is dyslexic), but Jamie resists. Instead, she wants her daughter in the class where Michael (Oscar Isaac) has kids singing and dancing while he plays his ukulele (skills he learned, he suggests, from his experience in Teach for America), or barring that, the one taught by Nona (Viola Davis), the English teacher who at least looks at her students while she tries one more time to get them to identify the “action word” in a sentence.
When neither of these options works out, Jamie puts Malia’s name in a lottery for a charter school, one whose principal introduces the excruciating business of the numbered balls by leading the assembly of desperately hopeful parents and children in a chant of “We can’t wait!”, even as the vast majority of them are about to be told they will have to wait, after all. It’s a grueling scene, not unlike the nerve-wracking montage of lottery scenes at the end of Waiting for Superman (both films, not incidentally, are financed by Phil Anschutz‘s Walden Media).
The point of both lottery scenes is that the charter lotteries are not a good answer to the problems posed by the broken American education system. While Davis Guggenheim’s documentary ends on that trauma, Won’t Back Down goes a next step, suggesting that if the charters in existence don’t suffice, that outraged parents and teachers should go ahead and make their own schools. Or, more accurately, they should take over a failing school, an idea drawn from the “parent trigger” law (now passed in seven states, though none yet yielding a successful takeover).
Jamie is inspired to take this step by a chance encounter with a fellow receptionist (whose description of the process takes place off screen and who vaguely cautions her concerning the many obstacles to such a venture) and then by a chance spotting of a forlorn Nona at the lottery. It happens that Nona is trying to get her son into a charter school, as Cody (Dante Brown is struggling in his bad public school. If his struggles are partly a function of problems between Nona and his dad (Lance Reddick), the film is single-minded regarding the solution: no matter students’ circumstances, whether they live in poverty or other kinds of chaos, whether their schools lack resources or even basic maintenance, the problem is teachers. More specifically, the problem is teachers’ unions.
That argument is certainly familiar. Here, it is alarmingly simplistic. The union is represented by the self-interested, small-minded Arthur Gould (Ned Eisenberg), who makes noises about the protections provided by teachers unions, but mostly serves as the obstacle that must be overcome by Jamie and Nona’s prodigious energies. Even more distressing than than the broadly drawn villain, is the film’s silly version of these energies. And, as much as you might sympathize with Jamie and Nona (both Gyllenhaal and Davis have that effect), you’re just as likely to be horrified by the film’s many shortcuts, its convenient plotting and ridiculous characterizations. Jamie can’t just enlist Michael to babysit for Malia when she goes off to meetings or even to get him to see the light against unions (this by overcoming Michael’s own pro-union family history); they also appear to have a little love story going, which is cheap from the moment they meet at a working class bar and then kiss while walking home. And Jamie can’t just convince Nona to join her, she has to have her line-dancing in that bar.
As for Nona, she can’t just convince her fellow teachers (including Rosie Perez!) to join her cause, despite their good reasons for liking tenure and also believing the union has protected them during adverse past events, she has to offer a terminally vague rationale (“We can go back to teaching the way we want to teach”) and also an astoundingly unspecific plan for the Board of Education. This after she pulls out a box of paper cutouts and spelling charts from her closet, emblems of her beloved mother’s career as a teacher. Back in the olden days, teachers cared! They played music and used magic markers. Now, they’re in unions.
As Nona and Jamie find their way to a happy ending, helped along by advice and moral support by sage school board member Olivia (Marianne Jean-Baptiste, another immensely sympathetic actor), the film turns increasingly glib. They march with other charter school enthusiasts, they carry placards and wear t-shirts proclaiming themselves “Parentroopers,” they attract local TV coverage, they even make the appallingly named union official Evelyn Riske (Holly Hunter) see their side, even after she offers to get Malia into an established charter school so that Jamie will give up her crusade.
This glibness—the quick changes of heart, the easy targets, the straw people—undermine the film’s potentially admirable efforts to point out that kids need help in school and in their communities. Whatever your political persuasion regarding public education, Won’t Back Down is a disappointment.