Review of Won't Back Down

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Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis play two determined mothers, one a teacher, who will stop at nothing to transform their children's failing inner city school. Facing a powerful and entrenched bureaucracy, they risk everything to make a difference in the education and future of their children.
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Movie Review: "Won't Back Down"

-- Rating: PG (thematic elements and language)
Length: 121 minutes
Release Date: Sept. 28, 2012
Directed by: Daniel Barnz
Genre: Drama

Education concerns almost all parents, especially when they feel that they have little control of their child's education. "Won't Back Down" is loosely based on a true story that occurred in Sunland-Tijunhga, Los Angeles, in 2010. After parents became concerned that schools were failing their children, they enacted a newly-passed law, known as the parent trigger law, which allows parents to have the power of school administrators if a petition is brought against the school. If a petition proves to be successful, parents have the ability to dismiss staff members who are underperforming or transform the school into a charter school. In "Won't Back Down," director Daniel Barnz puts this struggle between parents and school board administrators onto the big screen.

The plot of the movie is relevant due to the issue of teacher unions dictating how poorly performing schools should be administrated; this is something that often occurs in real life. Director Barnz wanted to present this divisive issue from the point of view of children because school should be primarily focused towards their needs. Unlike with what occurred in California during 2010, Branz wanted a film showing parents and teachers working together for the good of the children. This film showcases two actresses who show just that. A concerned mother, Jamie Fitzpatrick (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal), and an understanding teacher, Nona Alberts (played by Viola Davis), form a partnership that attempts to achieve the impossible: coming up against the teacher's union president and school's principal in an effort to change the futures of the school's children.

Gyllenhaal's character, Jamie, is a typical single mother and juggles two jobs in an effort to try and provide a good life for her young daughter, Malia. Many people can relate to this character because they have faced such challenges in their own lives. Set in Hill District in Pittsburgh, Jamie and her dyslexic daughter live in an apartment barely large enough for the two of them to sleep in. Malia had been doing well academically at a private school; however, when Jaime's economic situation gets tough, she has no choice but to send her daughter to the local public school, Adams Elementary. This is not an ideal situation, as Malia requires a specialized teaching style in order for her to be able to do well. The problem is that Malia's teacher at Adams Elementary does not show any interest in helping Malia, let alone any other children. The film does not explicitly mention it, but vibes from the teacher's actions suggest that she is protected from losing her job by her teacher's union, despite her lack of motivation to teach the kids.

Jamie is frustrated at the situation that she is in, so she decides to do something bold; take on the Teachers Association of Pennsylvania (TAP). In the eyes of Jamie, this fictitious teacher's union is an obstacle to Malia's future. After making some initial inquiries, Jamie finds an unlikely accomplice in one of the school's teachers, Ms. Alberts. After sharing their concerns with each other, the pair finds out from a member of the board of education that there is a recently established parent trigger law that allows parents to have more of a say in the education of their children.

Despite the fact that the school continually receives a failing grade from the county, Jamie and Nona come up against some strong opposition to radically change the way the school is run. Of course, many of these school board members and teacher's union representatives only have their own self-interest in mind. This film offers viewers a chance to decide for themselves whether or not a low-performing school should be held responsible by the parents of children that attend there.

"Won't Back Down" does not suit everyone's tastes, but it does offer a thought-provoking debate about the relevance of the public school system and what, if any, changes should be made to improve education standards. Gyllenhaal and Davis convincingly display the concerns that most mothers have when they send their children to a public school. As Gyllenhaal's character mentions, she would send her daughter to a private school if she could afford it, but it is simply impossible as a young single mother working two jobs. Although the film revolves around children and their futures, it might not be a good idea to take young kids to watch it because of the complex dialogue that is used. Any parent who wants the best for their child's education should be encouraged to watch this film for the insights it offers into the deficiencies of the public schooling system.

Rating: 3 out of 5