Magazine article Variety

Won't Back Down

Magazine article Variety

Won't Back Down

Article excerpt

FILM

Won't Back Dawn

Grounded in the belief that there are few things sadder than seeing a child say "I cant," heavy-handed inspirational drama "Wont Back Down" centers on a group of parents who organize to take control of their kids1 failing elementary school. Grossly oversimplifying the issue at hand, writer-director Daniel Barnz's disingenuous pot-stirrer plays to audiences' emotions rather than their intelligence, offering meaty roles for Maggie Gyllenhaal as a determined single mom, and Viola Davis as the good egg among a rotten batch of teachers, while reducing everyone else to cardboard characterizations. Absent high-profile champions, femme-centric pic could suffer from low attendance.

Taking the public for dummies, "Won't Back Down" dramatizes the least interesting part of its underlying true story - a fictional amalgam of national "parent trigger" law cases, by which concerned iocal majorities can oust the administration of underperforming public schools and replace them with charter operations.

On one hand, this approach successfully manages to tug heartstrings by positioning overworked young mom Jamie Fitzpatrick (Gyllenhaal) as the Erin Brockovich of education, cheerleading her uphill battle against bureaucracy. But it leaves off just where the real conflict begins: with a courtroom victory putting the passengers in control of the plane, to borrow a cautionary analogy from the film itself, never establishing how they will operate - or fund - the new system.

Working two jobs, as a car-dealership secretary and bartender, Jamie has her hands full just trying to provide for her secondgrade daughter, MaUa (wonderfully expressive Emily Alyn Lind). At Malia's previous school, the teachers would stay after class to help her practice reading, but not at Adams Elementary. There, union rules state that school ends at 3 p.m., in addition to protecting comparatively overpaid deadbeats like Deborah (Nancy Bach), who couldn't be any more irresponsible if she were swinging a chainsaw around in class.

For Gyllenhaal, the role marks a return to "Sherrybaby" mode, playing a well-meaning but overwhelmed mother teetering on just this side of white trash. In early scenes, Jamie is shown sweetening her instant coffee with Diet Coke and struggling to get Malia to school on time, but rather than judging her failings as a parent, the film asks auds to identify with her position.

As depicted, the system is inherently unfair and evidently designed to leave most students behind. Convinced that not all Adams teachers are awful (and noticing that the one played by Oscar Isaac has a nice butt), Jamie petitions the ambivalent principal (Bill Nunn) to put Mafia in another class. She even enters her daughter's name in a lottery for an idylUc-sounding charter school where a charismatic role model (Ving Rhames) encourages the parents to take matters into their own hands.

When the three free slots go to other kids, however, Jamie has no choice but to take her case to the school board, where a kindly receptionist (Lucia Forte) offhandedly introduces the solution in a scene that plays like a casual-recommendation aspirin commercial. Enlisting burned-out but well-meaning Nona Alberts (Davis) and studly Michael Perry (Isaac) from among the Adams staff, Jamie begins her petition to win over parents and teachers according to the Norma Rae model - that is, if Norma Rae were anti-union. …

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