Won’t Back Down opens on close-ups of a terrified young girl in a dingy classroom struggling to read the word “story” while classmates goof off with video games and a teacher checks her cellphone and shops for shoes. The film presents the modern public education experience as a ghastly nightmare, a meat-grinder with our children as its central victims. And in its (loosely) fact-based narrative of a mother and a teacher attempting to take over their failing Pittsburgh school, it takes square aim at teachers’ unions as the boogeymen who manage and maintain the nightmare. Which means it comes pre-loaded with political explosives; the issue of school choice is one that bitterly divides today’s American Left. But if you want your movie to blow up the right way, you have to do better than the paint-by-numbers story and characters presented here.
As Jamie Fitzpatrick, a harried working-class single mom who mans the phones at an auto dealership by day and bartends by night, Maggie Gyllenhaal is all wide eyes and big gestures as she discovers that her dyslexic daughter isn’t being given the necessary attention at school: When she asks the neglectful teacher if the girl could get extra help after school, she’s bluntly told, “School ends at three.” Meanwhile, in an adjacent classroom sits Nona Alberts (Viola Davis), a once-proud and much-awarded teacher whose dreams and ambitions have been beaten down by both an unwieldy system and troubles at home with her possibly slow son and aloof, workaholic husband (Lance Reddick). Nona and Jamie meet at a lottery for a local charter school (where they both fail to get in), and an errant comment inspires Jamie to try to take advantage of a state law that allows parents and teachers to take over a failing public school. She attempts to convince Nona, but just the two of them working together won’t be enough. They not only have to convince other parents and teachers, they also have to deal with the workplace tension this causes: Taking over the school means fighting the union, which puts other teachers’ job security at risk. And the union is run by a couple of smug, scheming bureaucrats (played by Holly Hunter and Ned Eisenberg) who are ready to fight our heroes at every turn, at one point even resorting to slandering Nona in anonymous pamphlets that bring up convenient third-act skeletons in her closet.
Amid this sea of clichés, there are some affecting moments: When a union honcho tries to buy off Jamie by offering her daughter a spot at a posh, bucolic private school, we get a touching glimpse of an elite world ordinary kids have no access to, and the scenes between Nona and her troubled son are heartbreaking. The film consciously pits the acting energies of its two leads against one another: Gyllenhaal’s wild-eyed crusader contrasts sharply with Davis’s somber cynic, and the movie is probably at its best when it leaves the two alone together, with Jamie doing her darnedest to crack Nona’s bitter, hardened shell. But there’s an imbalance in the characterizations here: Jamie at times feels like a caricature of a character Sally Field might have played once upon a time, minus Field’s understated and underrated brittleness. (Even if you weren’t thinking of Field, the film foolishly makes sure you do when Hunter’s union leader asks, “When did Norma Rae get to be the bad guy?”) The usually reliable Gyllenhaal struggles to bring to Jamie the kind of depth that Davis brings to Nona.
For every nuanced, touching moment, Won’t Back Down throws a dozen broad, cartoonish ones at you: The bad teachers are comically inept, the union bosses almost supernaturally manipulative. Occasional attempts at balance, mostly in the form of speeches recalling the glory days of the union movement, are spaced as mechanically and predictably as a class schedule. You might as well hear bells announcing each one.
The real problem with Won’t Back Down is that it ping-pongs between tonal extremes and never manages to settle into a groove. It mixes attempts at realism and grit with transparently Hollywoodized good guys-vs.-bad guys social melodrama. That requires a deft directorial hand, but director Daniel Barnz doesn’t seem to have it. It can be done: Years ago, George Miller (he of Mad Max fame) turned a tale of two strident parents confronting an ossified and snobbish medical industry into the heavily stylized, gloriously operatic fairy tale, Lorenzo’s Oil. And John Sayles used to regularly do this sort of thing in his sleep, situating Manichean narratives like Matewan within detailed, intensely realistic milieus. But Won’t Back Down has neither the contextual detail nor the stylistic panache to sell its cloying, wish-fulfillment narrative. It can’t decide what it wants to be, so it settles for nothing.