Movies seldom earn their happy endings but this one actually does. By skillfully navigating a minefield of political, social and moral issues involving the mostly broken educational system in America, “Won’t Back Down” achieves a well-deserved victory.
You might suppose the film’s director and co-writer, Daniel Barnz, would have to sugarcoat this issue and avoid that one altogether in order to dramatize how a group of feisty, uncompromising parents and teachers strove to take over a failing school in the face of entrenched bureaucratic interests.
But no, Barnz and co-writer Brin Hill give a fair hearing to all sides even as they portray the underhanded tactics and hardball schemes of the educational establishment.
Barnz uses his two extremely gifted stars, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis, to anchor the movie but is still able to take in a substantial cast playing integral roles that make “Won’t Back Down” an unusually satisfying drama.
Gyllenhaal plays Jamie, a mother with multiple jobs and a dyslexic daughter, Malia (Emily Alyn Lind), who is being ignored by teachers at a failing Pittsburgh inner-city school named Adams. Davis is Nona, a teacher at Adams but also a mother of Cody (Dante Brown), a student who has been labeled as “slow.”
Jamie epitomizes the old Tom Petty song that lends the movie its title: She’s a fireball of cheerful determination and brass where her daughter is concerned. Nona is a more cautious and thoughtful person yet a sagging enthusiasm for her job and concern for Cody nag her conscience.
So Nona is the first to capitulate to Jaime’s charm offensive as she seeks to woo enough teachers and parents to join her rebellion. Nona is wary but overwhelmed by the logic of Jaime’s arguments.
The movie can’t help reminding you somewhat of last year’s hit film “The Help,” in which Davis’ Mississippi maid became the first to talk to a white writer looking to expose working conditions of African-American servants in the Deep South.
The interaction between these two very different people forms the film’s dramatic propulsion but the story does expand to take in other Adams teachers who fear losing their union affiliation (and therefore job security) in the takeover.
Rosie Perez’s Breena, for instance, is torn between her friendship with Nona and the loss of union status. Then there’s Adams’ most-charismatic teacher Michael (the very good looking Oscar Isaac), who tentatively comes aboard the Jamie bandwagon because of a strong attraction to her but not necessarily her ideals.
The union itself sees the push for a charter school as an existential threat and pulls out all stops to block it. But the film intelligently refuses to cast the union as the bad guys. It has fought too long and hard to win job security and better conditions for its members.
She essentially tries to buy Jamie off with an offer of a hard-to-enter special school for Malia. Yet she can’t help admiring Jamie’s tenacity, which reminds her of her parents’ own fearless union organizing in the ’60s.
Same thing with the school board. It means to fight this challenge and yet Barnz brings in a board chairperson played by the inestimable Marianne Jean-Baptiste. She has allowed herself to become the mouthpiece of vested interests and bureaucracy but sees her old self in the fiery duo of Jamie and Nona.
The film is not all about political skirmishes. In fact, the heart of the struggle addresses the challenges and responsibilities of parenthood. So Jamie and Nona’s relationships with their children are crucial components of the drama.
There turns out to be unsettling aspects to those relationships. Barnz rejects squeaky clean heroes in favor of more nuanced portraits of imperfect people who nonetheless insist on doing the right thing by their kids.
In smaller roles, Bill Nunn as the Adams principal who is not above using dirty tactics to stop the revolt, Lance Reddick as Nona’s estranged husband and Ving Rhames as a principal who serves as a kind of role model for the take-over all score in brief appearances.
“Won’t Back Down,” from Walden Media (a children’s film production and publishing company) and Mark Johnson, one of the smarter and better producers of studio pictures today, may not achieve the hit status of “The Help.”
“Won’t Back Down” is not based on a best-seller nor is it about such an explosive topic. (Although the relationship among race, poverty and educational opportunity is deeply entrenched in the subtext.)
Still, there’s no mistaking the passion and integrity with which “Won’t Back Down” has been made. You don’t get that often enough in studio films; these tend to come more with specialty labels or indie films and even there it’s becoming increasingly rare.
The production in Pittsburgh takes a fresh look at that city, viewing its poor sections to be sure yet treating the city as one on the edge of a possible renaissance.
Rusty Smith’s production design so well shot by cinematographer Roman Osin makes Pittsburgh look like a thoroughly livable city that has challenges but might be up to the task of meeting them.
If people like Jamie and Nona reside there, you can only have hope.
Opens: September 28, 2012 (20th Century Fox)
Production companies: Walden Media presents a Gran Via production
Cast: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Oscar Isas, Rosie Perez, Ving Rhames, Lance Reddick, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Bill Nunn, Holly Hunter, Emily Alyn Lind, Dante Brown, Liza Colón-Zayas, Ned Eisenberg
Director: Daniel Barnz
Screenwriters: Brin Hill, Daniel Barnz
Producer: Mark Johnson
Executive producer: Ron Schmidt, Tom Williams
Director of photography: Roman Osin
Production designer: Rusty Smith
Music: Marcelo Zarvos
Editor: Kristina Boden
PG rating, 120 minutes