As school reform, 'Won't Back Down' doesn't measure up: Instead of humanizing the education debate and bringing clarity and nuance to it, the movie is more likely to add to the ill-informed rancor surrounding the issue.
Opinion by Karin Klein, L.A. Times Editorialist | http://lat.ms/Pw8F6T
Maggie Gyllenhaal, right, and Viola Davis in a scene from "Won't Back Down." (Kerry Hayes / 20th Century Fox / Associated Press)
September 28, 2012 :: Has school reform gotten sexy? Not likely, even if it is the subject of a feature film, "Won't Back Down," opening Friday and starring such big names as Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis. Rather, the movie is, as many reform efforts tend to be, simply well funded. In this case, backing comes from Walden Media, which is owned by conservative billionaire Philip Anschutz and which was also the force behind the documentary love song to charter schools "Waiting for Superman."
With that kind of background, it's not surprising that "Won't Back Down" concludes that California's "parent trigger" law — under which parents can force a major change at a school if half or more sign a petition — is a wholly wonderful thing that can, say, turn around the reading problems of a dyslexic child almost overnight, as it does in the movie. Although the film claims to have been inspired by actual events, the truth is that there hasn't yet been a school takeover via parent trigger (and the parent takeover in the movie only slightly resembles how the law works).
The movie does an injustice to both serious school reform and the education system it targets by smugly oversimplifying the problems in public schooling — and the remedies — to the point where they are nearly unrecognizable. And whose bad idea was it to have a white mom be the chief "rescuer" of a low-performing inner-city school when in reality almost all of the students at such schools are black and Latino — as are the parents who try to bring about change?
In this film, there isn't a single decent person who doesn't join the reform side. The emblematic "bad teacher," union boss and unhelpful principal aren't just uncaring, they're immoral monsters. The Teach for America recruit is inspiring and just plain hot. And even though the school will be nonunion when it completes its transition to an unexplained model that doesn't exist in the real world, no teacher dedicated to children's welfare will need to worry about losing a job. Try telling that to the teachers who signed the petition for Locke High School in South Los Angeles to go charter and then weren't offered jobs by Green Dot.
Turning around schools is complicated, difficult work that often doesn't succeed despite the best intentions of those who try. Some charters are models of excellent education, but equal numbers do a worse job than traditional public schools. The big screen has the potential to humanize the education debate and bring clarity and nuance to it. "Won't Back Down," though, is more likely to add to the ill-informed rancor surrounding school reform than to our understanding of it.
Movie review: 'Won't Back Down' doesn't let up on unions - Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis star in a manipulative film that blames a teachers union for a failing school. But the movie's biggest flaw is the lack of drama.
By Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times Film Critic | http://lat.ms/Qh4WJI
A teachers union is set up to be a villain in "Won't Back Down," starring Viola Davis, left, and Maggie Gyllenhaal. (Kerry Hayes / Walden Media)
September 27, 2012, 3:50 p.m. :: When movies are at their most mindless, i.e. much of the time, it's tempting to wish things could be otherwise. What adult moviegoer hasn't hoped Hollywood could rouse itself at least every once in awhile to pay attention to the issues of the day.
But while the hot button-hugging "Won't Back Down" would seem to do just that, it also serves to warn us to be careful what we wish for. This poor film is so shamelessly manipulative and hopelessly bogus it will make you bite your tongue in regret and despair.
Nominally "inspired by actual events" (though even fantasies like Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" could make that claim), "Won't Back Down" wastes any number of capable actors, starting with stars Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis, on a story that mixes simple-minded analysis of a complex problem with melodramatic contrivances Michael Bay might be ashamed to use.
That problem, which has been all over newspaper front pages and op-ed sections in recent weeks, is the crisis in American education. "Won't Back Down" avoids the most controversial aspect of the current situation — whether teachers should be held directly accountable if student standardized test scores are weak — but it has no hesitation about creating a villain for all seasons: teachers unions.
Of course, you wouldn't know that from the film's press material, which avoids the word "union" like the plague. (Financier Walden Media was also responsible for the pro-school privatization documentary "Waiting for Superman.") Or from co-writer (with Brin Hill) and director Daniel Barnz, who has been inexplicably quoted as saying he is "extremely pro-union." And the truth is, if "Won't Back Down" were an exciting, involving story, its political orientation wouldn't be an issue. But it isn't.
Pittsburgh single mom Jamie Fitzpatrick (Gyllenhaal) isn't thinking about unions when the film starts. She's trying to hold her salt-of-the-earth life together, juggling not one but two impeccably blue-collar jobs (used-car lot receptionist by day, bartender by night) while worrying that her daughter Malia (Emily Alyn Lind) isn't getting a good education.
In fact, young Malia is getting the world's worst education, courtesy of Adams Elementary, labeled a failing school for 19 years and counting. Worse than that, Malia has a monster of malfeasance for her teacher, a woman who, brazenly protected by union seniority, texts while her students create chaos, refuses to let them go to the bathroom and insists that union rules prevent her from working past 3 p.m. (American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten flatly calls this particular claim "an egregious lie.")
Equally unhappy about her life is Nona Alberts (Viola Davis, vibrant as ever even in a thankless role). She's an Adams teacher but is so troubled by the school's failings, as well as a host of personal problems (she and her husband, played by "The Wire's" Lance Reddick, are splitting), that she walks through the halls like a zombie.
Desperate to improve her daughter's chances, Jamie gets a break when someone at the board of education tells her about a new law that allows a combination of parents and teachers to take over a school and turn it around. (Similar statutes called "parent trigger" laws do exist in several states, including California, but no group has been able to put them into practice yet.)
Nothing if not determined, not to say manic, when her child's welfare is at stake, Jamie decides to spearhead a school takeover movement, and she steamrollers Nona to be Ms. Inside to her Ms. Outside.
Never mind that everyone tells them the task is flat-out impossible, that the deck is stacked against them, that it takes years and years even to get to 'No.' Jamie, powered by an enthusiasm level that would shame the Energizer Bunny, won't back down. If you are worried even the tiniest bit about her chances despite this tsunami of obstacles, Hollywood has a bridge in Brooklyn they'd love for you to buy.
Jamie even involves her brand new boyfriend Michael (Oscar Isaac), whose use of music in the classroom magically makes him the only effective teacher Adams has. Michael is one of a few characters who half-heartedly mouth pro-union platitudes in a feeble attempt to give labor equal time, but his enthusiasm for solidarity isn't fated to last.
That's because unions turn out to be the most pernicious of all the obstacles to healthy schools, worse even than the stick-in-the-mud school board. While no one, not even unions themselves these days, denies that there are things that must be changed about how they operate, the notion of them as total evil only makes perfect sense to companies that believe in unionless, private charter schools that increase profits by paying teachers whatever they can get away with.
The union in "Won't Back Down," the Teachers Assn. of Pennsylvania or TAP, is fictitious, as well it might be given the awful things it stoops to, including vicious character assassination and attempts to manipulate Jamie by appealing to the best interests of her beloved child. For shame, unions! For shame!
Though the film's pernicious propagandistic bias is irritating and misleading, it can't be overemphasized that what is really wrong with this film is how feeble it is dramatically. When Nora is trying to decide if she should work with Jamie, she remembers her mother's question: "What are you going to do with your one and only life?" Anyone who values their one and only life would be well-advised not to spend two hours of it here.
'Won't Back Down'
MPAA rating: PG for thematic elements and language
Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute
Playing: In general release
“WON'T BACK DOWN'S” 'PARENT TRIGGER' SCHOOL STORY DRAWS PROTEST - stars Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis as a mom and teacher who try to improve a failing public school. Anti-charter advocates aren't fans.
By Nicole Sperling, Los Angeles Times | http://lat.ms/OpfR74
Viola Davis, left, and Maggie Gyllenhaal star in "Won't Back Down." (Kerry Hayes, Walden Media / July 19, 2011)
September 26, 2012, 5:22 p.m. :: The new film "Won't Back Down" tells the story of a crusading single mother and a dedicated teacher who take on a bad principal, an unforgiving union and an entrenched bureaucracy in an attempt to improve a failing public elementary school.
The real-life tale couldn't be more topical: The Chicago teachers strike brought public school reform to the forefront of the national conversation. But the film's relevance is proving problematic too. Pro-union, anti-charter school advocates began denouncing "Won't Back Down" weeks ahead of its Friday release, making the movie a target in ways its makers hadn't intended.
Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, issued a public letter at the end of August condemning the movie for laying the blame for underperforming schools at the feet of the teachers union.
Earlier this month, protesters spoke out against "Won't Back Down" when it screened in Charlotte, N.C., during the Democratic National Convention. And most recently, demonstrators lined the street at the film's New York premiere objecting to the idea that it's up to parents to reclaim troubled schools.
"I am surprised," said producer Mark Johnson of the early negative response to the movie. "Maybe I've been naive about this, but I think it's a David and Goliath story: two women, two mothers from completely different backgrounds who get involved in trying to do something about the sorry state of this particular school."
Written by Brin Hill and director David Barnz, "Won't Back Down" stars Maggie Gyllenhaal as struggling Pittsburgh mom Jamie, who, concerned that her young daughter Malia is receiving a substandard education at Adams Elementary, takes advantage of a newly enacted "parent trigger" law that allows parents and teachers to reclaim failing schools.
She finds a powerful ally in Davis' Nona, a beleaguered instructor at the school.
California enacted the first "parent trigger" law in the country in 2010, around the same time Barnz was hired to direct "Won't Back Down." Coming from a family of teachers, Barnz says he had a personal connection to the material, but he was aware of the mixed reaction to Davis Guggenheim's 2010 documentary "Waiting for 'Superman,'" which critics also decried as anti-union and anti-teacher.
"Won't Back Down" features plenty of committed teachers, some pro-union, others critical of its policies, and a bureaucrat (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) willing to help the activists in their cause. But the film also includes a checked-out teacher who shops online and rarely engages with her students, and a union head, played by Holly Hunter, who tries to bribe Jamie and considers engaging in a smear campaign against Nona.
Her colleague, played by Ned Eisenberg, is shown to be completely out of touch with what goes on in the classroom.
Still, Barnz disagrees with the idea that the film, which was financed by Denver billionaire Phil Anschutz's Walden Media, the same company that worked on the release of "Waiting for 'Superman'" with Participant Media and Paramount Vantage, is anti-union.
"That is not the point of the movie. The movie is about how parents come together with teachers to transform a school for the sake of the kids," said Barnz, adding that despite Anschutz's conservative politics, the businessman never gave Barnz input on the script.
Over the last few weeks, the film's distributor 20th Century Fox has hosted scores of word-of-mouth screenings across the country, in addition to special events at both the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., and the DNC in Charlotte.
Those screenings included question-and-answer sessions with Barnz, Johnson and many advocates for school reform including Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of the Washington, D.C., school district, Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, among others.
"I hope it activates people to do something about education in our country," said Gyllenhaal of the film.
Opening weekend expectations for "Won't Back Down" remain soft, with the $19-million movie on track to pull in less than $5 million when it opens against the sci-fi time travel film "Looper" and the animated comedy "Hotel Transylvania."
"On opening day, 95% of the audience that goes to see the film will go based on advertising material rather than any of the so-called controversy," Johnson said.
He went on to point out that at a time when female-driven, adult dramas are hard to find, "Won't Back Down" is the rare issues-driven underdog story featuring lead performances from two Oscar-nominated actresses.
"If you look at the successful issues movies, 'Erin Brockovich,' 'Norma Rae,' and you think about why you liked those movies, I bet you don't remember what the issues are. What you remember are the characters realizing they can accomplish something, going up against a monolithic institution and being able to change it."