Zimbio Review - 'Won't Back Down' Has an Agenda, and It's Not to Make a Quality Film

(20th Century Fox | Getty Images)
The Bottom Line
Should you see it?

Naive and predictable, the film takes a simplistic view of a hugely convoluted issue and makes mince meat of it for its own agenda.
If the point of Won't Back Down was to take a polarizing, immensely complicated issue and make it black and white, bravo! Success! Billed as a prospective Oscar contender (what Viola Davis film isn't?) Won't Back Down is barely suited for movie of the week status. Which by the way, used to be the platform for naive, topical issue films starring someone off the B-list. This film will be released nationwide due to an impressive cast, but don't be fooled, it's a TV movie at best.

Maggie Gyllenhaal keeps getting these roles as a hard luck mother because she's so good at it. She is again here, the film is fueled by her wide-eyed intensity in the face of injustice and her cuddly warmth in scenes with her daughter. Nobody hugs like Gyllenhaal. She plays Jamie Fitzpatrick, a single mom in Pittsburgh who works two jobs and becomes appalled when her little girl, Malia (Emily Alyn Lind), still can't read despite her third grade status. The first real scene in the movie shows her teacher texting at her desk while the kids play video games and goof off. The movie is not subtle, and neither is Jamie. 

She finds her cause when she learns about the "Fail Safe Law" whereby parents can "take over a school" if they collect enough signatures from parents and teachers and are approved by the school board. A "three to five year process" according to one administrator that is "impossible," but Jamie only has two months, and the movie only has two hours. Can you guess what happens?

As predictable as movies like these are, they still need to get to the happy ending. Jamie befriends Nona, a teacher at her daughter's school who also has a struggling child and is just as fed up with bad teachers and the bureaucratic, stagnant system. They team up to get the signatures, but Jamie takes time to fall for another teacher, Michael (Oscar Isaac), who seems content babysitting every night while Jamie works. The one refreshing thing about Won't Back Down is women run the show while men take a back seat and watch from the sidelines. It's just as duplicitous as the reverse, but at least women have a voice here.

Education reform is a polarizing issue these days and Won't Back Down fictionally parallels what last year's documentary Waiting for Superman did: It blames teacher unions across the board for students' classroom struggles. Won't Back Down is partially funded by Walden Media which also produced Waiting for Superman. So, while the movie purports to be "based on true events," it's really pure fiction driven by a political agenda (check out Julie Cavanagh's HuffPo piece for more).

The education reform issue is a hugely complicated topic that shouldn't be trivilaized by Hollywood, but that's what Hollywood tends to do. Sometimes it succeeds, creating a microcosm of Civil Rights struggles, for example (as in To Kill a Mockingbird), but it just as often fails (as in The Help), and that irresonsibility is a disservice to theater-going Americans who are already largely misinformed by the media in general (nevermind fictional works of film or television).

But, politics aside, Won't Back Down doesn't succeed as a film either. Veracity is trampled by the film's clunky narrative which eschews all the reasons the Fail Safe Act won't work in favor of moving the plot forward. The obstacles the two heroines face disappear just as quick as they emerge, and the mother/daughter relationship between Jamie and Malia, so prominent at the beginning of the film, disappears by the second act.

The film is rife with weaknesses: cliches and scene-appropriate songs. "Change the school, you change the neighborhood." Nona tells a concerned parent. While "Learning to Fly," by Tom Petty blares over the film's big awareness scene when all the parents march on the school in gag-inducing harmony. Even Gandhi is quoted. The script is as taped together and flimsy as the film's attempt at relevancy.

Gyllenhaal and Davis are both fantastic actresses. They're great together when they share screen time and are both very believeable as vulnerable mothers with everywoman problems. Their performances are strong and save the film from straight-to-DVD status, but that doesn't mean the movie is worth considering from a thinking person's standpoint. The issues are too big for this film.

See more photos of Maggie Gyllenhaal here:
  • Maggie Gyllenhaal in Maggie Gyllenhaal Leaves the 'Today' Show
  • Maggie Gyllenhaal in "Won&squot;t Back Down" New York Premiere
  • Maggie Gyllenhaal in Rag & Bone Women's Collection - Front Row- Spring 2013 Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week
  • Maggie Gyllenhaal in "Won&squot;t Back Down" New York Screening
  • Maggie Gyllenhaal in Summer Party on the HIGH LINE, Presented by COACH
  • Maggie Gyllenhaal in Maggie Gyllenhaal Says "Good Morning America"
  • Maggie Gyllenhaal in Maggie Gyllenhaal Out in Brooklyn
  • Maggie Gyllenhaal in Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard Out in the Rain
Managing Editor, Zimbio — entertainment writer, critic, and reporter since 2011. Bay Area. Origin: Shark City.