"Won't Back Down" contains a pair of the greatest opening and closing bookends I have ever seen.
It begins with a tight shot of a little girl's confused and terrified face as she struggles to read out loud the word "story."
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"Won't Back Down"★ ★
Starring: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Holly Hunter, Oscar Isaac
Directed by: Daniel Barnz
Other: A 20th Century Fox release. Rated PG. 121 minutes
It ends with tight shot of the same little girl in front of her classmates. This time she reads quite well. Then she comes to the words, "We hop."
Her face scrunches up and we can tell she knows something isn't right. We see the wheels turning until her eyes flash with sudden recognition.
She says "Hope!" And the screen fades to black.
What a marvelous, inventive way to bracket a story about schools, teachers, kids, principals and principles.
Yet, this triumphant tale of two brave women who take on the system against overwhelming odds never achieves the level of inspiration it clearly strives for.
Maggie Gyllenhaal stars as Jamie, a Pittsburgh single mom struggling to help her little girl Malia (Emily Alyn Lind) learn in her class. It's filled with bored, sleepy students under the inattentive eye of a teacher too busy on her communications device to teach.
In the same school, Adams Elementary, a teacher named Nona (the great Viola Davis) seems to be the head zombie instructing little members of the non-walking dead in lessons about parts of speech that aren't even age-appropriate for her grade level.
Jamie can't get Malia into a private school where she might have a chance at a high-quality education.
Nona can't get her little son Cody (Chicago actor Dante Brown) the extra help he needs to overcome an apparent learning disability.
These two women join forces after Jamie discovers a law that enables them to petition for the restructuring of a failing school by disbanding unions, firing the instructors and starting over from scratch.
Jamie persuades Nona to help their children by not waiting for bureaucrats to continue to do nothing. The unionized teachers are not happy. At first.
Jamie gains a supporter (and love interest) in Mike (Oscar Isaac), an instructor who believes union teachers are better prepared to educate.
Union official Evelyn Riske (Holly Hunter) tries to buy Jamie off by offering Malia a free ride at the city's most prestigious private school.
Nope. Jamie won't back down. (We kinda guessed this from the film's title.)
Daniel Barnz' drama has been "inspired by true events," Hollywood code for "none of this really happened, but fragments of the story bear a resemblance to truth."
The drama hails from a film genre in which heroes wage war against broken/corrupt establishments. Cop Al Pacino did it in "Serpico." CIA agent Robert Redford did it in "Three Days of the Condor."
Davis and Gyllenhaal do it here, but their movie has plot holes big enough to hold all the SAT tests ever written.
During a key scene, Adams' unethical principal (Bill Nunn) fires Nona for faking attendance records that he had ordered her to fake.
The screenplay -- credited to Barnz and Brin Hill -- completely ignores the ironic natural turn of events that would have pumped the drama with welcome conflict: the union would rally to Nona's defense and protect her, despite her intent to disband the union.
The movie also fails to imbue the optimistically perky Jamie and the introverted Nona with the leadership qualities necessary to run a school, making for a more satisfactory ending.
"Won't Back Down" comes from Walden Media, which also produced "Waiting For Superman," a doc that made a case against public schools and unions in favor of setting up charter schools.
Barnz's drama has been accused of being a thinly disguised promotion of "Parent Trigger" legislation that allows for citizens to easily privatize public schools.
Maybe. But if "Won't Back Down" was produced to be a powerful and persuasive drama demonstrating that parent triggers are the answer to public school problems, it kinda does back down.