WON'T BACK DOWN DVD (2012)
SYNOPSIS: Oscar Nominees Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis lead a stellar cast in this empowering drama inspired by actual events. Hard-working single mom Jamie Fitzpatrick (Gyllenhaal) is concerned that John Adams Elementary is letting her daughter down. Teaming with a caring teacher (Davis) who wants the best future for her own son, she sets out to improve attitudes and elevate the school's academic standards. Despite the odds, with courage, hope and persistence, the women just might prevail in this uplifting film that also stars Rosie Perez and Academy Award Winner Holly Hunter.
Good intentions don’t a good film make, and Daniel Barnz’s ‘Won’t Back Down’ is a prime example of that. Co-written by Brian Hill, Barnz takes on the existing public education quagmire in the United States with a ham-fisted drama that wastes two talented performers in Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis, as well as a perfectly captivating premise that requires urgent real-life attention and solutions.
With credit to real-life events, Barnz adapts from the ‘parent trigger’ laws that have been passed in California, enabling parents to take control of failing public schools and transform them into ‘charter schools’. The reality is much less ideal, as a critical look at such ‘charter schools’ also reveals an uneven track record and less but no less present bureaucratic politics. School reform is never easy, especially at the national level, and Barnz unfortunately sidesteps complexities for a simplistic portrayal that casts teachers’ unions and education boards as the villains of the process.
Constructed to tug at his audience’s heartstrings, Barnz sets Gyllenhaal as a Pittsburgh working-class mother Jamie who is increasingly frustrated by the standard of education her dyslexic daughter Malia (Emily Alyn Lind) is receiving in the fictional Adams Elementary School. The teacher (Nancy Bach) has tenure and is protected by union rules, so she does the bare minimum for her class; meanwhile, the principal (Bill Nunn) is too resigned to the system to do anything more.
Jamie’s frustration is mirrored by another teacher, Nona Alberts (Davis), whose passion for teaching has dimmed by institutional rigor over the years. Unable to afford a better private school and stuck in two jobs just barely making ends meet, Jamie is forced to rally other concerned parents and teachers in order to activate what the film calls a ‘fail-safe’ manoeuvre, essentially the equivalent of the ‘parent trigger’ laws. Does she succeed in getting past them union controls and the school board? Well, yeah.
No different than a Erin Brockovich for inner-city kids, Gyllenhaal plunges into the role with gusto, delivering the clichéd lines with the utmost conviction she can summon. Davis matches Gyllenhaal with quiet will, a force of stoic perseverance that is imbued with the actress’ mix of dignity and pathos. Gyllenhaal also finds allies on the union and the board, with Holly Hunter and Marianne Jean-Baptiste in strong supporting parts.
Pity then that Barnz paints a by-the-numbers story that skims over the complex issues involved, adds a trite romance for Jamie in the form of an unorthodox hunk of a male teacher Michael (Oscar Isaac), and resolves it all with a happily-ever-after that is clearly manufactured to milk the most of his audience’s sentiments towards the issue. It’s as unsubtle as it gets, and far too banal than a story like this deserves.
In fact, you’ll probably learn more watching Davis Guggenheim’s 2010 documentary ‘Waiting for Superman’ on the same issue, done in a far less didactic and soap opera-ish fashion. We too recall how Barnz made one of the worst movies of 2011, the aptly-titled high-school version of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ called ‘Beastly’, and one laments how a much more compelling movie could certainly be made of the subject matter in the hands of a more dexterous director. As it is, ‘Won’t Back Down’ is a lecture, and a dumbed-down one at that.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio delivers the dialogue adequately, while the visual transfer is serviceable.
DVD RATING :
Review by Gabriel Chong