Viewed through one lens, Won't Back Down has all the contours of a classic David-and-Goliath story, this time about two determined moms who face down an intransigent educational bureaucracy to get the grade-A school their kids deserve.
Blue eyes flashing, her hair cut in an edgy mop, Maggie Gyllenhaal goes into full Erin Brockovich as Jamie Fitzpatrick, the single mom of a second-grader whose dyslexia and abuse by bullies goes unnoticed at her dank Pittsburgh public school.
As Nona Alberts, Viola Davis plays what has become her signature role as a noble but silently suffering heroine, in this case a teacher at that school whose once-passionate ideals have been irretrievably thwarted by institutional torpor and corruption.
When the two women join forces to turn the school around, it's impossible not to cheer their sisterly solidarity and feisty perseverance, as they go door to door in Jamie's blue-collar neighborhood to gain support. It's just as impossible not to understand when Jamie approvingly eyes the backside of a cute teacher named Michael (Oscar Isaac), who teaches kids math while line-dancing with a ukulele. And it's even more impossible not to boo and hiss when the teachers-union reps come on screen to foil the women's efforts through cynical manipulation and, ultimately, sleazy character assassination.
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This is where a second lens on Won't Back Down proves useful: More than a portrait of spontaneous motherly outrage, it becomes clear that the movie has been designed as an anti-union, pro-charter screed, the fictional counterpart to the 2010 documentary Waiting for Superman.
Based loosely on the "parent trigger" laws that have passed in California enabling citizens to take control of failing schools, the film blithely passes over the questionable results from those takeovers, just as it glibly ignores the uneven track record of charter schools and the effects of poverty on childhood education, from hungry students who can't focus to the permanent state of fight-or-flight that makes learning next to impossible.
It's so much easier to reduce a notoriously complex problem to teachers — whether they're idealized or demonized, as they are in Won't Back Down. The grinding, everyday work of being an engaged public school parent — communicating, negotiating and, yes, sometimes fighting with teachers and principals — doesn't hew to an inspiring three-act structure.
The two-steps-forward, one-step-back nature of collaborative reform doesn't lend itself to a climax featuring plucky heroes wearing green and big bad union guys wearing red. Writer-director Daniel Barnz choreographs that sequence to maximize nail-biting and stirring emotion. But by that time, Won't Back Down has become so didactic that viewers are likely to feel less uplifted than lectured.