WON’T BACK DOWN is a formula film laid out with the precision of a well-honed lesson plan. With a hard-hitting opinion about the current state of public education, and many opportunities for the two stars of the piece, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis, to go big acting-wise, this has all the hallmarks of the sort of prestige film that is looking ahead to awards season. Certainly Gyllenhaal and Davis do fine work, Davis even cries, which usually gets her an Oscar™ nod, but there is to WON’T BACK DOWN a subversively anti-union stance that taints everything about it coupled with a story that leaves nothing to the imagination.
Gyllenhaal is Jamie Fitzpatrick, a working-class single-mother juggling two jobs and despairing over her eight-year-old daughter’s education at Adams Elementary, one of Pittsburgh’s failing public schools. Malia (Emily Alyn Lind) is a sensitive child with dyslexia, a condition that her teacher has no interest in addressing. Not that she’s much interested in her class at all, spending most of her time on her cell phone during class time. Said teacher isn’t much more popular in the teacher’s lounge, where idealistic Nona (Davis) commiserates with her best pal, Breena (Rosie Perez), about how tenure is keeping the bad teachers in classrooms and making it harder for all of them. Nona has other problems, including an eight-year-old son (Dante Brown) who is not keeping up with his peers in his class work, and a husband (Lance Reddick) who is walking out on her.
It’s inevitable that these two mothers will meet and decide to launch a takeover of sorts of Adams in order to re-mold it into a temple of learning instead of a factory turning out drop-outs and incarcerated criminals. The script by Brin Hill and Daniel Barnz does an excellent job of spelling out the obstacles that the women face in getting their proposal approved by the school board. It’s a showcase for Gyllenhaal to emote quiet but determined strength and for Davis to be a reluctant advocate who finally catches fire with passion for being the teacher she wanted to be. Individual scenes are well-acted, and Barnz, who also directed, catches the frenetic chaos of Jamie’s life with finely measured hand-held shots, reserving the static but no less effective camera for the way that Nona’s life is falling apart. There are the confrontations with other parents, with other teachers, with school board members, union reps, and with their own children.
Naturally there’s an uphill battle that is all but unwinnable save for Jamie’s pluck and Nona’s grit. Naturally there is a cute teacher (Oscar Isaac) who is unsure about the new school that will leave him without a union, but who is certain that Jamie is fine girlfriend material. Naturally pluck and grit pay off with only a modicum of cliché doubts and infighting. Not quite so naturally, Hill and Barnz have included an evil teacher’s union boss (Ned Eisenberg) who will stoop as low as he needs to in order to thwart the ladies from getting their way, including smear tactics and outright lies. They even have him proclaiming that when kids pay union dues, then they will be his top priority. Not even tempering that depiction of a union with a functionary (Holly Hunter) who is a true believer in unions but is nonetheless troubled by those tactics can quite make up for the hatchet job at work here.
All films should aspire to manipulating their audiences. WON’T BACK DOWN does just that, but with no subtlety and little genuine conflict or tension. It’s so by-the-book and by-the-numbers that it leaves the audience with little to do but sit back and wait for the next swelling music cue to tell it how to feel about what is happening on screen.