Committed performances by Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis notwithstanding, “Won’t Back Down” is one of those issue movies that exist solely to press an issue. Which means it never quite feels like a movie.
Let us assume that the true story upon which this film is reportedly based is an inspirational saga, and that it resulted in schoolchildren receiving a better education than the one they’d been getting before. Kudos all around, and may other such stories happen.
The movie is another thing. We’re in Pittsburgh, where a notorious public grade school has a dismal record for educating students.
Frustrated mom Jamie (Gyllenhaal) teams up with frustrated teacher Nona (Davis) to legally take control of the school. They have to get a certain number of parents and teachers on their side, and execute a series of legal challenges to the school, but with the right amount of spunk and gumption, they just might do it.
I’m not saying “Won’t Back Down” is unskilled in generating audience reaction, because it pulls strings and pushes buttons like nobody’s business. Gyllenhaal contributes another of her seamless portraits (this time of an under-educated woman who wants a better life for her dyslexic daughter), and Davis shows the forceful talent that got her Oscar-nominated for “The Help” and “Doubt.”
But in the most fundamental way, the movie exists only to advance a particular argument, which is that school systems need a revamp. The film’s particular target is the rule that gives job security to teachers, even bad teachers, in the form of union protection.
You can tell that director/co-writer Daniel Barnz is aware that someone will accuse him of making an anti-union movie if he doesn’t give the other side, so “Won’t Back Down” bends over backward to remind everybody of the importance of unions. “You can criticize and support unions,” someone says, as though anticipating one probable reaction to the film.
One union rep, played by the underemployed Oscar-winner Holly Hunter, is the film’s stab at giving complexity to the different sides in this fight. Unfortunately, the sentimental conception of the role means it makes the argument less complex.
Since, at the moment, the only union that seems to generate public sympathy is the one involving NFL referees, “Won’t Back Down” has the curious effect of piling on. If the makers of this movie really thought it wouldn’t be taken as a justification for breaking unions, then they’re even more naive than they already seem to be.
“Won’t Back Down” (1½ stars)
A single-note inspirational picture, in which a mother (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and a teacher (Viola Davis) team up to fight an entrenched public school system. While the issue may be important, this is an issue movie of the dullest kind, despite the efforts of the talented actresses.
Rated: PG for subject matter.
Showing: Cinebarre, Galaxy, Oak Tree, Pacific Place, Sundance, Woodinville, Cascade.