Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 22, 2013)
A new entry in the “inspirational educators who overcome the odds” category, 2012’s Won’t Back Down takes us to John Adams Elementary in a rough part of Pittsburgh. Jamie Fitzpatrick’s (Maggie Gyllenhaal) dyslexic daughter Malia (Emily Alyn Lind) attends second grade at Adams and struggles academically but finds herself trapped in a cycle of failure due to rowdy classmates and an incompetent, uncaring teacher (Nancy Bach).
Not all the educators at Adams are as useless as Deborah, though. Nona Alberts (Viola Davis) wants to get more out of her students but finds them to be listless and disinterested. Breena Harper (Rosie Perez) gets stuck with the kids who learned nothing from Deborah, so she needs to teach two years of school packed into one.
Like Jamie, Nona has a child who struggles academically, and both hope to get their kids into a prestigious charter school. Alas, neither wins the lottery, so they’re stuck with their current circumstances.
Or are they? Jamie learns of a law that lets parents “take back” schools, so they set out to do this. We follow their attempts to start a new school to correct all the problems at Adams.
As someone in his twentieth year of employment at a public school system, I come to a film like Won’t Back Down with a certain perspective. Some might think this gives me particular insight, while others might believe it makes me biased – or both might be true.
I can’t distance my career’s worth of experience from my thoughts on the issues displayed in the film, even though I tried. Not that I think one needs to have spent years in education to have strong opinions of Down, for its flaws as a piece of cinema become readily apparent.
The Blu-ray’s case states that the film was “inspired by actual events”. How does that differ from “based on…”? It means that the film boasts incredibly tangential connections to real life.
In this case, the movie’s connection to “actual events” stems from the existence of a California law that allows parents to force school distracts to take severe measures to change underperforming facilities. Apparently this triggered one instance in which parents tried to oust a principal of a middle school and close an unsafe building.
Not quite as sweeping and inspiring as Down’s tale of rabble-rousers who start their own school, is it? But that’s fine – while I think the “inspired by actual events” credit will lead viewers to believe Down gives us a situation that really occurred, it’s not a big deal.
On the other hand, the movie’s simplicity and apparent political agenda create greater concerns. During his commentary, co-writer/director Daniel Brunz takes pains to discuss his affection for unions and how much good he thinks these groups do for teachers. That’s a surprise, as that attitude makes little appearance in the film.
Sure, Down pays some lip service to the usefulness of teacher unions, as token love interest Michael (Oscar Isaac) gets stuck with a few lines about the topic. However, it feels like these quick sequences exist solely in an attempt to defuse an interpretation of the film as anti-union. So much of the rest of the film paints unions and administrators as anti-teacher that the pro-union comments come across as disingenuous at best.
Make no mistake: the film portrays unions as status quo and anti-education. The leader of the story’s local union even declares that they’re there for the teachers’ benefit, kids and education be damned. Actually, he issues a quote attributed to late union activist Albert Shanker – a quote that the movie presents as fact but that Shanker probably never said.
There’s objectivity for you – fiction painted as fact as long as it’s anti-union! Look, I won’t argue that unions – teaching or otherwise – are always on the side of the righteous or that they don’t ever have negatives attached to them, but I don’t believe it’s correct to show them as essentially the whole problem. I’ve spent enough time around administrators to realize how roughshod they’d run if teachers didn’t have the backing/protection of unions.
But in the world of Won’t Back Down, it’s union leaders and mindless bureaucrats who cause all the problems. In a sense, the film doesn’t really blame bad teachers, as it views tenured duds like Deborah as symptoms. No unions and Deborah would’ve been toast long ago, right? There’s no way I’ll deny that some crappy teachers retain employment due to easy tenure and union backing, but I still don’t agree with the film’s one-sided view.
I also think it almost completely ignores what I believe to be the main reason kids fail: disinterested parents. In the world of Won’t Back Down, all parents campaign and fight for their kids. In the real world, we’re stuck with lots of parents who couldn’t care less about their kids’ educations.
I work with kids who’re struggling in school and spend a lot of time at meetings to go over their progress and needs. At some of my schools, we’re lucky if half the parents show up for these discussions. They usually don’t call or respond to inquiries; these MIA parents are so uninvolved that they can’t even be bothered to ask what the school thinks would help their kids.
You won’t see that attitude in this propaganda piece, however. Lazy teachers, status quo-obsessed unions and mindless bureaucracy are the sole causes of the “educational crisis”. Get rid of the second and shake up the third to deal with the first and every kid’s going to Harvard!
Or maybe not. Of course, I applaud the teachers who go above and beyond for their kids, and I see them all the time. I also praise the parents who stand up for their children and do what they need to do to ensure success.
But don’t try to tell me that the educational problems are all one-sided. I’ve been in the field too long to blame the system for all of the various woes. Schools get kids for about seven hours a day; they can’t fix the issues that arise in the other 17 hours.
Leaving my own rants aside, Down flops because it’s simply not a good film. It dumbs down the issues to an enormous degree and comes across as little more than a collection of political talking points. The characters lack reality; they exist as archetypes and are on the screen to promote an agenda, not to create an involving story.
And they often behave in utterly illogical ways. For instance, Jamie learns enough about the system to attempt a school takeover – why doesn’t she ever figure out that Malia would get support services if identified for special ed? The girl clearly would qualify and then Jamie would be able to find the program right for her.
This subject never arises so it’s not presented as an option, even though it’s the most sensible way for Jamie to get Malia the help she needs. Of course, if that happens, there’s no movie, so I understand the absence of this concept, but it still galls me.
Down really does prefer its black or white worldview. The characters are either awesome or horrible, with precious little wiggle room. Of course, some start out one way and then change, but any shades of gray quickly get erased. Jamie’s little more than a one-dimensional saint stuck with awful dialogue and malapropisms. Gyllenhaal does her damnedest to add life to the part, but it’s an impossible task. Davis seems to be on autopilot, as she has the “put upon but proud” attitude she seems to display in most of her roles and little else.
Perhaps I remain too close to the subject matter to manifest much objectivity about Won’t Back Down, but I think that even if I divorce myself from my feelings about the educational system, it’s a weak film. It’s little more than one-dimensional propaganda without the narrative or character development to make it involving.