Director Daniel Barnz delivers a compelling up-in-arms story, in overdose, of the failings of some public education in his third feature film, ‘Won’t Back Down.’ As if the film’s route intention was to blast you with the issue, Barnz follows teacher Nona (Viola Davis) and parent Jamie (Maggie Gyllenhaal) in their fight to independently run a suffering Pittsburgh elementary school, their own children their inspirations. Based, but very loosely, on a true California story, it more exaggerates the idealism of education reform and some scattered successful efforts. But its falsities don’t put the film completely to waste. ‘Won’t Back Down’ has more than a cheesy title.
‘Won’t Back Down’ enlightens on the necessity of a good education, with details that may or may not be reliable, but shows a good fight with parents, educators, and school-board officials alike not easy to convince. Lacking in Jamie’s back-story, mostly as to why she’s a single mother with little money, and some necessary follow-up after the district’s verdict, the film maintains a vigor that is well-paced and always in relevant conflict, with some shaky cinematography by Roman Osin to add. It’s as if you’re dashing the school halls alongside the lead characters. Just looking at exhausting heaps of petition paperwork that a single-working mom sifts through to give her daughter a better school is enough to peak curiosity for the outcome.
This ‘inspired’ movie otherwise feels like a disregard for facts (in California the jurisdiction by parents and teachers was less) and a have-all for education awareness on the grounds of dramatic cinema and why not, justice. Education dramas done better like ‘Mr. Holland’s Opus’ with Richard Dreyfuss (1995) or ‘Music of the Heart’ with Meryl Streep (1999), ironically both about music teachers, hold the simple fact that a good education by inspired teachers will fair you better and it’s still very clear in ‘Won’t Back Down.’ But straying this far from accuracy puts the film into question for believability.
It’s difficult not to approach this film predictably, given the timely and obvious optimism, but there’s a fair share of charm in the character sincerity. Fostering wholesome, but not forced, relationships, performances in ‘Won’t Back Down’ come off passionately through a large breath of emotion. Viola Davis’s role as a teacher exhausted by family problems and a discouraging school system shows a steady measure of survival and it’s great. She’s surely broken, but builds herself back up, with Jamie and teacher confidant Breena, the toned down Rosie Perez, to relate with. Maggie Gyllenhaal is relentlessness, at times too much so, with her pushiness and unfazed attitude towards others’ opinions about her. Beyond the few moments where she’s on the verge of crazy eyes, she gives positive fire to the film that would suffer without it. ‘Won’t Back Down’ is for all intensive purposes fictional but, like Jamie forcing petitions at parents after school, it pushes the larger issue and it’s impossible not to notice.