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Won’t Back Down

by DAN LYBARGER SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE | September 28, 2012 at 3:56 a.m.

— As the son of two former teachers, I’m grateful that someone decided to make a film that decries the state of public schools. For the sake of my folks and others who have toiled for paltry salaries, it’s a shame that co-writer-director Daniel Barnz (the mind behind Beastly and Phoebe in Wonderland) couldn’t have made a better one than Won’t Back Down.

While the words “Based on Actual Events” flash across the screen, this film owes more to Davis Guggenheim’s documentary Waiting for “Superman” than it does whatever real incidents Barnz attempts to enact. Characters don’t have conversations; they burst forth in factoids as if they were staring into smart phones to get the data.

Actually, smart phones are the problem at Adams Elementary in Pittsburgh. It seems the alleged teacher in charge of an elementary classroom is watching her text messages more closely than her pupils while struggling second-grader Malia Fitzpatrick (Emily Alyn Lind) tries in vain to read the text on the blackboard. Malia isn’t as dim as her classmates suspect. She’s dyslexic, and her cruel, lazy and incompetent instructor isn’t giving her the help she and others need so that they can get beyond Pittsburgh’s mean streets.

Her determined mother, Jamie (Maggie Gyllenhaal), works as a bartender and a car dealer but can’t afford to send Malia to a better school. When she discovers a good teacher named Nona Alberts (Viola Davis), who is also looking for a better school for her special needs son (Dante Brown), the two join forces to try to turn Adams into a character school. In such a school, committed teachers like Nona can do their jobs and bums like Malia’s teacher can be shown the door.

While a little effort brings hundreds of parents to the cause, the Pennsylvania teachers union (meaning the National Education Association) opposes the move even though the school is obviously deficient. The union leaders (played cartoonishly by Holly Hunter and Ned Eisenberg) do everything in their power to sink the effort because they value power more than student welfare.

The depiction of union dirty tricks on behalf of workers who clearly deserve to be let go might have rung true if all the characters weren’t played by card-carrying Screen Actors Guild members. If the principles espoused in Won’t Back Down were followed, Chuck Norris and Brooklyn Decker would have been downsized after their first wooden line readings. Gyllenhaal and Davis shouldn’t be asked to give up their cards for their work here, but Barnz saddles them with dozens of “Oscar clip” speeches.

It’s hard not to think of Mike Myers in Wayne’s World blubbering out, “I never learned to read!” as the words “Oscar Scene” flash on the screen.

Barnz loads the film with showy visual touches that would have been more appropriate for the fantasy movies he made earlier. To indicate how long Jamie and Nona have spent canvassing the neighborhood, we can see them knocking on two doors at the same time, trying to get their petitions signed. If Barnz had spent more time trying to make the people seem believable instead of thinking of this gimmick, the highlight of Won’t Back Down wouldn’t have been hearing Tom Petty singing during the credits.

Won’t Back Down

70 Cast: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Oscar Isaac, Holly Hunter, Rosie Perez, Emily Alyn Lind, Dante Brown, Lance Reddick, Ving Rhames, Bill Nunn, Ned Eisenberg Director: Daniel Barnz Rating: PG, for thematic elements and language Running time: 121 minutes

MovieStyle, Pages 35 on 09/28/2012

Print Headline: Won’t Back Down

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