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Despite Strong Female Leads, Won't Back Down Polluted by Politics

  • Christa Banister Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
  • 2012 9 Sep
  • COMMENTS
Despite Strong Female Leads, <i>Won't Back Down</i> Polluted by Politics

DVD Release Date: January 15, 2013
Theatrical Release Date: September 28, 2012
Rating: PG (for thematic elements and language)
Genre: Drama
Run Time: 121 min.
Director: Daniel Barnz
Cast: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Oscar Isaac, Holly Hunter, Rosie Perez, Emily Alyn Lind, Lance Reddick, Ving Rhames, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Dante Brown

While Maggie Gyllenhaal has always gravitated toward playing feisty women in everything from her indie breakout Secretary to more mainstream fare like Mona Lisa Smile, Stranger Than Fiction, Crazy Heart and The Dark Knight, she particularly shines as a rough-around-the-edges single mother channeling her inner Erin Brockovich in Won't Back Down.

Sporting a small compendium of tattoos, not to mention a seemingly endless supply of midriff-baring tops, the receptionist who moonlights as a bartender to pay the bills doesn’t exactly look like the poster child for education reform. But when Jamie’s eight-year-old dyslexic daughter, Malia (Emily Alyn Lind, TV’s "Revenge") doesn’t seem to be learning anything in school, let alone how to read, and her teacher isn’t willing to devote any extra energy to help, Jamie starts exploring her options.

It turns out escaping the clutches of an underperforming institution is anything but easy. After losing out on one of three coveted positions at a local charter school that are awarded via lottery, another door slams just as dramatically when Jamie asks the principal if Malia can be transferred into Nona Alberts’ (Viola Davis, The Help) first grade class instead.

In stark contrast to Malia’s teacher who spends more time piddling with her Smartphone than actually engaging her students, Mrs. Alberts tries her best to actually bring the ol’ reading, writing and arithmetic to life. Trouble is, the bulk of her kids don’t exactly appreciate the effort. Making matters worse, Nona doesn’t feel like she’s succeeding at home either. Despite her gentle maternal encouragement and regular tutoring, her son Cody (newcomer Dante Brown) still has trouble with his homework, especially basic math. Add in a sagging relationship with her husband, and well, it’s safe to say that Nona feels like she’s failing on all fronts.

As kindred spirits who don't know it yet, Jamie and Nona’s lives are about to intersect, thank to Jamie’s unflinching desire for change. In fact, it’s while she’s trying to arrange a meeting with a district decision-maker that she finally comes across a sympathetic ear. Then in what feels like an overly convenient bit of plotting (Won’t Back Down is based on actual events, but what’s real and what’s the handiwork of the screenwriters isn’t clear-cut), Jamie offers to buy the friendly receptionist a cup of coffee, leading to some potentially life-changing revelations in a matter of minutes.

Casually mentioning that Jamie could take advantage of new fail-safe laws that allow disgruntled parents to play an integral part in turning the schools around, Jamie knows what she has to do, despite facing a seemingly endless amount of red tape. Not letting the fact that so many before her have failed stop her, Jamie successfully recruits Nona to the cause in her limited spare time, and they begin building their case brick by brick.

As timely and noble as the issue of educational reform is, Won’t Back Down is far too simplistic—and needlessly political with its approach. Your enjoyment of the film hinges largely on how you feel about labor unions. If you think they're the sole reason that bad teachers still have jobs and kids aren’t learning as much as they should be, you're in luck. If only they would have focused solely on fighting for what's best for the students.

That misstep aside, the film still has its merits. Not only are Gyllenhaal and Davis’s performances nothing short of outstanding (one scene in particular, where Nona apologizes to her son, is definitely Oscar-worthy), Won’t Back Down will provide plenty of opportunities for lively post-movie discussion, a welcome change from what’s currently gracing a theater near you.

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol: Social drinking, plus Jamie works as a part-time bartender, so there are a couple of scenes at the local watering hole. Nona blames herself for a car accident that happened with her young son in the car after consuming a couple glasses of wine, so she no longer drinks.
  • Language/Profanity: An exclamation of God’s name, plus an instance of basta--, da--, as-, he--, sh-- and pu--y.
  • Sex/Nudity: None, just a few kisses exchanged between Jamie and Michael. Jamie also has a tendency to wear shirts that accentuate her cleavage, her bare midriff or both.
  • Thematic Material: Nona and her husband are newly separated, and we see how the frayed family dynamic affects their young son. There are several discussions involving the trials of living in a low-income area, including increased gang activity, drugs, a higher drop-out rate, etc. There’s also some bullying of students who are considered "slow."

Publication date: September 28, 2012