“Won’t Back Down” begins around the same point where the 2010 documentary “Waiting for Superman” ended.
One of the final scenes in “Superman,” which panned the impact some teachers unions have on public education, showed parents waiting to learn if their children would win a lottery to enter the local charter school. A similar scene takes place near the beginning of the pro-school choice “Won’t Back Down” as the main character watches as her daughter loses out in such a lottery. But instead of waiting for Superman, this mother puts on a red cape herself.
Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Jamie Fitzpatrick, a woman who works two jobs and wants her daughter- who suffers from dyslexia – to have a better life than she’s had. Standing in her way is a failing public school named after John Adams and a few unionized teachers who have allowed some students to graduate elementary school without being able to read.
Fitzpatrick isn’t alone in her disappointment with her child’s school. So is Nona Alberts (Viola Davis), a teacher who sees the school’s failures firsthand and hopes to get her own son into a better school. After the lottery leaves both women nearly hopeless, they discover that a trigger law would enable them to take over control of John Adams if enough parents and teachers signed on. Both mothers then mount a campaign to wrest control of the school away from those who failed the students to give it to those who want to try something new.
The movie’s portrayal of a teachers union and an education bureaucracy that stifles change has caused controversy over the past several weeks, but the film makes numerous attempts to show that most teachers are good, hard-working individuals. But it also highlight how the current education system is failing many of our kids, and that parents must take a stand to get schools to change.
Oscar Isaac, a singing teacher who portrays Fitzpatrick’s love interest, is one of the few characters who stands on the sidelines of the school reform debate. He just wants to teach. He knows the benefits that unions can provide – both personally and professionally – but also realizes that a failing school isn’t helping the very people that it purports to serve.
Some will criticize “Down” for its political ideology but regardless of your personal beliefs, it features a compelling narrative and several strong performances. Gyllenhaal, Davis and Isaac are all great in their respective roles, and Holly Hunter does a superb job as a union official who is willing to bribe Fitzpatrick to get her to abandon her plans.
You might predict where this David vs. Goliath story is heading, but what the film lacks in surprise it makes up for in heart and noble purpose. It strives to pushes viewers to think about a controversial topic and realize that we can – and must – do better for our nation’s future.