(by Dustin Putman
From its well-meaning premise - two mothers, one a teacher, strive to dismount and rebuild an ailing inner city elementary school - right down to its Tom Petty-inspired title, "Won't Back Down" sounds unmistakably routine, a proverbially sappy melodrama that, wouldn't you know it, is inspired by actual events. Cynical viewers who come to see it will likely be expecting nothing more than a glorified, theatrically-released Lifetime movie. With the rare exception of a few moments, mostly snippets of dialogue, that prove to be a little too on the nose for their own good, the film never falls into such traps. In some ways, writer-director Daniel Barnz (2009's "Phoebe in Wonderland"), recouping after 2011's "Beastly" misfire, and co-writer Brin Hill have made a picture as blistering and rightfully critical of today's public education system as Tony Kaye's "Detachment." More surprising is that they've done so while keeping the material wholly relevant and safely within the confines of a PG rating. The gross negligence on view, however, is not for the weak of stomach. Article continues below
Jamie Fitzpatrick (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a single mother striving to provide for her daughter, second-grader Malia (Emily Alyn Lind), without the benefit of a college degree. She might work two jobs - one as a secretary at a used auto dealership, the other a bartender - but she is very much aware of what's going on at Malia's Pittsburgh school, Adams Elementary, and she doesn't like it one bit. Suffering from dyslexia and unable to read, Malia isn't receiving the necessary aid or concern from her teacher, the despicably indifferent Deborah (Nancy Bach), that she deserves. Worse yet, although statistics have shown that this school is breeding students with failing grades and little opportunity for advancement, no one is doing anything about it. When hopes of getting Malia into Rosa Parks - the third best school in the state - are dashed, Jamie turns to Adams teacher Nona Alberts (Viola Davis) for help. Nona is at first reluctant to get involved, but she empathizes with Jamie a great deal - her own son, Cody (Dante Brown), also has a learning disability - and finally can't help but join the cause. Against seemingly indomitable odds, plenty of red tape, and a highly critical teacher's union and school board, Jamie and Nona set out to take Adams Elementary from educational squalor and turn it into a quality place of learning where a child's future is once again wide open with possibilities.
"Won't Back Down" takes on a serious topic, but fret not; the film is an absorbing, marvelously-acted piece of work that entertains without ever feeling like a school assignment itself. Director Daniel Barnz sees his characters as flawed people, but most of them are also inherently good; save for Malia's awful teacher, Deborah, who shops online and fumbles with her phone while her students try unsuccessfully to read a sentence on the chalkboard, even Jamie's and Nona's naysayers, like union board member Evelyn Riske (Holly Hunter), are treated fairly and with valid points-of-view. There is no question which side the audience is supposed to be rooting for, though, and it helps that the protagonists are so easy to pull for as underdogs trying with all their might to make a difference in their children's and students' lives before it's too late.
Maggie Gyllenhaal (2010's "Nanny McPhee Returns") is plucky, cutely disheveled, and finally arresting to watch as the hard-working, admirable Jamie Fitzpatrick, who sees her daughter going down the same road she did and isn't about to let it happen. Being a parent isn't easy for her, or anyone - Malia loves her mom, but is frequently defiant, prone to saying some harsh things in the heat of the moment - and Gyllenhaal's reaction when her daughter acts out is touching in the simple way she lets it slide off her back and then continues her rallying cries. As number-one supporter Nona Alberts, Viola Davis (2011's "The Help") can do no wrong; watching her inner spirit and outward drive in the face of some tough family problems - a divorce, followed by the wrenching decision to let her son temporarily live with his father so he can go to a better school - is truly inspiring. As Evelyn Riske, who empathizes with Jamie and Nona while in the same breath arguing why what they're doing probably won't work, Holly Hunter (2003's "Thirteen") is given the chance to bring welcome shades to a character whose ultimate arc is neither black nor white. Rosie Perez (2008's "Pineapple Express") gives a nice supporting turn in a less brassy role than is her specialty as Nona's colleague, fellow teacher Breena Harper, and Emily Alyn Lind (2010's "Enter the Void") is a natural little actress as Malia. Oscar Isaac, so terrific in the recent "10 Years," is fine as music teacher Michael Perry, but the romantic subplot that forms between himself and Jamie is a non-starter that could have been excised with few changes made to the rest of the narrative.
"Won't Back Down" was shot on location in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, by cinematographer Roman Osin (2007's "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium"), lending the working-class setting a gritty realism that capably supports the story being told. As it is said, every aspect of a picture works in tandem to create a complete whole, and a few soundtrack choices - the hopeful "Spotlight (Oh, Nostalgia)" by Patrick Stump leading up to the Rosa Parks raffle, and Tom Petty's "Learning to Fly" during a promotional rally to bring further awareness to Jamie's and Nona's cause - are especially complimentary to the film's tone. "Won't Back Down" isn't without a few seams in the script - in one scene, Nona incorrectly says that she "could care less," a glaring misuse of a common phrase that no English teacher such as herself would ever make, and the very end comes close to being too neat - but these are the exceptions and certainly not the rules in a stirring drama that finds a way to bring insight to its real-life issues without talking down to viewers or growing preachy.