Won't Back Down What's all the hoopla about? Granted we all like a "feel good" film every once in a while. That's all well and good. I enjoy a solid underdog tale as much as anyone, and if that's your appetite and you enjoy visual baby food, you will be well pleased with "Won't Back Down", the new film by Daniel Barnz which is (yes you guessed it) yet another film inspired or based "by actual events." Dear God.
The film stars Maggie Gyllenhaal as Jamie and Viola Davis as Nona. They are two young struggling mothers with two struggling kids and their dads are either non-existent or self absorbed. Their kids are academically failing in school and both have learning disabilities, although this is not completely or intricately described. Gyllenhaal goes hither and dither overworked and looking cute (if that's possible) with dimpled cheeks. She smiles as much as a Cabbage Patch doll. When she notices that her daughter is having trouble in school and being bullied she springs into action. Watch out!
"Have you heard about those mothers who lift those one ton trucks off their babies? They're nothing compared to me." Grizzly Mom 3!!!
Subtle this film is not and it deals with such a vital and important subject that it should be.
Jamie as portrayed, is half Betty Boop and half Sarah Palin. Jamie's speech is so familiar and trite it's embarrassing
"Let's be the Change!" She screams.
A quotable T-shirt has more wisdom.
And as inflamed by teachers unions as she is, she never looses her sexual allure, going about in loose t-shirt dresses and skin tight spandex pants. Allegheny chic!
Oscar Isaac is her heart throb Teach, part Ricky Martin and part Fonzie with a ukulele and a bad ass which makes him all bohemian. Our man Michael complete with a leather jacket doesn't care to make a new school, all he wants to do is teach, man.
Wow. Radical dude! I'm blown.
Every rally in the film comes with a festive smiling crowd and pre-fab speeches of the TV movie variety.
The school board is described without much heart, spirit or color, having all the subtlety of Grinches and Ebenezer Scrooges. I have been a teacher and I have talked with other teachers and college professors much more accomplished than myself. Unions do present problems. This is true. But they are not faceless, manipulative, sniveling bitchy people as they are shown here. There are reasons for unions: they function to protect the worker and that point is largely forgotten here.
This film is a libertarian valentine under the guise of a report card and the subject deserves more weight.
One aspect that I did enjoy is the acting of Viola Davis. Her portrayal is honest and forthright and her expression is shining steel. And Gyllenhaal has her moments as well, particularly when she is incensed and spaced out in shock after losing the opportunity to place her kid into a charter school.
I was even ready to meet this film half way, but when Nona hit me with the fact that she was in a car accident with her taciturn son and then when Jamie admits that she is dyslexic along with her daughter. I said, oh No way, Nona. Balanced against a big showdown at the end, the melodrama becomes pre-stirred into an all too cloying syrupy pablum.
There is one fine poetic scene near the start of the film, where Jamie and Nona are canvassing their building asking for signatures. The camera pulls back to show multiple silhouettes of the two women panoramically, as if they are reproducing themselves by the force of their intention to make a better school. Alas, out of two become many, be they mentors or exorcists, shaded in the darkness of anonymity, to cast out the demons of a sick educational system.
It is a singular beautiful image, recalling the vibrant melody of "West Side Story". If only this one scene and some compelling acting largely due to Viola Davis ("I'm the first black Stepford Wife." Nona exclaims in the film's best line) but the story is as thin as a #2 pencil.
Go see "The Class" (2008), a fine French-language "slice of life" film to compare, or the classic "Blackboard Jungle" (1955). And don't forget "Dead Poets Society." (1989). All three of these films have a depth and an allure that the self righteous and seemingly mass produced "Won't Back Down" just doesn't have.
Based on this film alone, I want to quote Alice Cooper: "School's out for summer!" Let us hope that there will be better films to come and that school will not, actually, be out forever. Write Ian at email@example.com