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Sunday, September 30, 2012

Won't Back Down

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The failing of our public schools is a hard-hitting issue, and deserves an equally hard-hitting movie to cover it.  Won't Back Down is certainly not that movie.  It's safe, formulaic, and by the numbers.  It argues that certain failing public schools would be better off if the parents took over, and kicked out all those lazy, unproductive teachers that are protected by seniority.  And how does it show that the school would be better off?  Well, it doesn't, really.  Once the parents get what they want, all we get to see are the kids singing during an assembly.

picThe movie is not "based on a true story", rather it is "inspired by actual events".  It follows a working-class mom named Jamie (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who teams up with a teacher at her daughter's school (Viola Davis) when both become frustrated with how their special needs children are being treated in school, and by the staff.  Jamie's daughter, Malia (Emily Alyn Lind), is dyslexic, and is not getting the help she needs by her uninterested teacher.  The teacher that Jamie teams up with, Nona, feels her pain.  She has a son who is struggling with keeping up with the rest of the class.  Both are tired with the way things are run, and so they decide to team up to take the failing elementary school away from the unions, and put it in control of the parents and the community.

picThe characters keep on stressing that this is a difficult process that could take years to complete, and even then, it's not a guarantee to go through.  Yet, Jamie is spunky, spirited, and never lets anything get her down.  Gyllenhaal plays her like she's constantly leading a pep rally to cheer on the home team.  Even when she seems to be on the verge of tears, she just shakes her head, and there's that smile again.  No matter how difficult things get, she lives up to the film's title, and won't back down.  Of course, things never really get all that difficult.  Sure, there are a lot of people who try to tell her it can't be done, or some people get mad at her.  But, she's still able to get all the required signatures necessary in about the span of a montage.  Before you know it, she's staging massive protest rallies and support drives that would take weeks to plan in real life, but in this movie, only takes an afternoon of planning.

picWe never get a sense for these characters.  Jamie and Nona never create a bond of friendship that I believed in, or got behind.  They simply plow ahead with their plans, and when they are successful, they smile and embrace each other.  We're supposed to get the feeling that they've been through a lot together and only by helping each other did they get this far.  I didn't get that feeling, because of how simplistic the narrative is.  There's also a subplot concerning Jamie falling for a cute young teacher (Oscar Isaac) that doesn't go anywhere, nor does it add anything to the movie.  The plot and the character of the boyfriend could have been written out without any sacrifice.  Equally unnecessary is a plot concerning Nona's ex-husband, who leaves her early on for reasons the movie didn't really make clear, and then shows up now and then so he can complain about how she's raising their son, and then give her an approving hug at the end, showing us that everything will be okay, once again for reasons the movie didn't really make clear.

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Won't Back Down simply lacks intensity, integrity, and a reason for us to get behind it.  It wants to be about something, but then it backs off, and handles everything in such an uninspired and formulaic manner that we don't get involved.  There's a documentary called Waiting for Superman which covers this same topic in a much more fascinating and truthful way.  Compared to that, this movie is pretty thin soup.

See the movie times in your area or buy the DVD at Amazon.com!

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