In case you didn’t get enough of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s scintillating acting skills in The Dark Knight, watching her play the role of a dyslexic “parentrooper” in Won’t Back Down is truly a gem.
In this knock-off of Freedom Writers sans hot actors, Jamie Fitzpatrick (Gyllenhaal) gets pissed off when a fellow classmate berates her dyslexic daughter to read faster (t-t-t-today junior) while her teacher shops online for knee-high boots. Using her frustrations as an impetus to skulk around the school, Fitzpatrick watches Nona Alberts (Viola Davis) drowsily lecture her bored-as-hell class of students and logically thinks, “Well, that’s way better than my kid’s teacher; Pikachu, I choose you!” The film then focuses on Fitzpatrick and Alberts’s quest to take on the failing school system, and if the ending isn’t wholesomely predictable to you, you’re probably a nice kid.
The producers of the film were kind enough to ensure that no moviegoer would leave confused as to what each scene intended to convey. Any scene meant to vilify the school system is shown in gray to convey the sadness that we feel by teachers who online shop way too often. On the flip side, passionate speeches about creating schools run by overactive, single parents with an affinity for denim jackets are colorful and vibrant. Snaps to director Daniel Barnz for his ability to find professionals with basic iMovie skills.
The true issue with the movie, however, is that it strives to touch upon a meaningful topic and fails every single time. Barnz’s main point in the movie is that unions perpetuate problems within the public school system because they keep teachers who aren’t doing their job from getting fired. An assault on tenure and unions is contrary to the typical puff-pieces Hollywood produces about inner city kids succeeding with the help of a super-attractive English teacher—and this quality should, by default, make the movie somewhat captivating.
This theme, however, gets lost in a sea of terrible dialogue and poor character development. Through the entirety of the film we never actually learn of the other changes listed in Fitzpatrick and Alberts’s over 300-page document to change the school. The movie attempts to focus on the debate over teachers’ unions so much that there are literally no ideas mentioned about how to fix the school. Not only does this reduce Fitzpatrick’s quest into a roundabout way of getting her daughter’s teacher fired, it also makes the whole process completely meaningless.
Furthermore, the teachers move seamlessly from opposing the dynamic duo tooth-and-nail to getting drunk in a nightclub with them and emphatically shouting their disapproval of unions in the Board of Education meeting. Even Michael Perry (or Sexy Texy, Fitzpatrick’s witty name for a guy with no Texan accent) goes from absolute support of the unions to complete disapproval within two scene cuts. The complete unreality of this situation prevents the movie from having any real point. It’s clear that changing the bureaucratic nature of a school system would never be this simple, and having everyone jump on board Fitzpatrick’s “screw the unions” train disallows any true debate or dialogue to enter the film.