Won’t Back Down is a crude work of art.
Each character in the new film, about Pittsburgh parents and teachers who band together to take over a struggling school, is crafted less as a believable human being than as a talking point. First there are the students of F-rated Adams Elementary, a tapestry of white, black, Latino and Asian children. But racial diversity is not typical of failing schools; of the seven shut down in Pittsburgh this year because of low performance, two are more than 95 percent African-American, and the rest more than two-thirds black.
Then there is the seedy union boss who couldn’t care less about children and who has politicians in his pocket; and the best teacher at Adams Elementary, who happens to be a young, white, male Teach for America alum named Michael, who grows more troubled each day by the excesses of organized labor—despite his liberal inclinations. While many Hollywood education melodramas feature a white teacher saving a school of poor children of color (think Dangerous Minds), Won’t Back Down strives for some modicum of political correctness. Here the reform spark is lit by a white, working-class single mom, Jamie Gallagher, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal with almost noxious levels of wide-eyed, girlish spunk. Frustrated by failed efforts to get her dyslexic daughter placed in the classroom of an effective teacher, Jamie convinces a veteran black educator, Nona Alberts (Viola Davis), to join her in enacting a “trigger” takeover of the school—that is, a majority of parents and teachers can sign petitions to oust a school’s management and reconstitute it as a nonunionized charter-type school. In this effort, Jamie and Nona are opposed every step of the way by a cartoonish teachers union, which bribes Jamie to give up her fight by offering her free private school admission for her daughter, and publishes a flier attacking Nona as a bad mother.
The idea of a parent takeover is based on laws recently passed in seven states, the most high-profile of which, in California, does not require any teacher buy-in at all—though it does offer the option of schools remaining unionized post-trigger. It could be years before any school fully completes the parent trigger process; the furthest along is Desert Trails Elementary, a predominantly Latino school in Adelanto, California. School choice activists there have been opposed by teachers unions and have received support from Parent Revolution, a nonprofit funded by Walden Media and the Gates and Wasserman foundations.
Though Won’t Back Down is hackneyed and sentimental, Davis’s restrained emotionalism breathes life into Nona, a middle-class divorcée who had idealistically followed her mother into teaching, only to become burned out after years of battling bureaucracy. I found the character of Jamie much more improbable. Although she works days at a used-car dealership and nights at a bar, she never seems sleep-deprived or sick or worried about health insurance. Jamie always has the energy to grab a stack of petitions and rally parents to her cause with a smile; somehow she also has time to begin a romance with Mr. Teach for America. And though Jamie’s boss is constantly yelling at her for spending more time on activism than on work, she miraculously never gets fired.
Of course, a mother’s love for her child can motivate superhuman feats. Yet there are only so many hours in a day—especially for the working class in a bad economy. That’s why it is highly unlikely that hundreds of low-income schools around the country will suddenly find themselves facing grassroots trigger movements of the kind imagined in Won’t Back Down.