out of Five
Running time: 121
Emotionally engaging drama that compensates for its predictability with a pair of terrific performances by Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis, though it's also a little fuzzy on the actual details.
What's it all about?
Directed by Daniel Barnz, Won't Back Down is loosely based on a true story and stars Maggie Gyllenhaal as Jamie Fitzpatrick, a Pittsburgh single mother who becomes exasperated with her dyslexic daughter's (Emily Alyn Lind) failing inner city school. When she discovers a statute that permits the essential takeover of a school, she teams up with similarly frustrated teacher Nona Alberts (Viola Davis) and the pair set about trying to gain the required number of signatures from both parents and teachers, in order to move forward with their proposed changes.
However, the pair soon encounter strong opposition in the form of the teachers' union, headed by Evelyn Riske (Holly Hunter) and various teachers at the school who are afraid of losing their tenured positions. Meanwhile, Nona clashes with her estranged husband (Lance Reddick) over the future of their learning-impaired son (Dante Brown), while Maggie begins a romance with kind-hearted, inspirational teacher Michael (Oscar Isaac).
Maggie Gyllenhaal is superb, delivering a feisty and engaging performance as Jamie and sparking strong chemistry with both Davis and Lind. Davis is equally good as Nona, while there's strong support from the likes of Reddick, Isaac, Hunter, Rosie Perez (as a fellow teacher) and Marianne Jean-Baptiste (as a sympathetic school board member), as well as strong child performances from both Brown and Lind.
Despite the film's length, Barnz keeps the film moving at a decent pace and the film pushes all the right buttons along the way, without resorting to too much in the way of sickly sentimentality, though its laughably cheesy opening and closing scenes were probably a mistake in that regard.
Aside from its obvious predictability (there wouldn't really be a movie if it had any other ending), the film's biggest problem is that it's frustratingly fuzzy on the details of who exactly is to blame for the school failing in the first place, preferring to demonise a single rubbish teacher (Patricia Cray) and an intransigent principal (Bill Nunn). Similarly, the script doesn't really explain why a new parent/teacher-led school would be an improvement, since it would basically be using the same teachers.
On top of that, there's a slightly uncomfortable element of union-bashing (despite the script's attempts to shoehorn in a balance of opinion), while the resolution involving Holly Hunter's character is another unintentionally laughable moment that probably should have been dropped.
Despite some issues with over-simplification and predictability, Won't Back Down remains an engaging and enjoyable drama enlivened by strong performances from Gyllenhaal and Davis.