The cheesy, wholly manipulative Won’t Back Down features the empowerment of a downtrodden school community, led by single mother Jamie Fitzpatrick (Maggie Gyllenhaal) whose eyes gleam with the zeal of reform or perhaps too much instant coffee and self-infatuation. Jamie works two jobs—selling used cars and bartending—and has a learning disabled third-grader who is being woefully neglected in the Pittsburgh public school system. Like Erin Brockovich before her, Jamie sets out to rally the community through any means possible, including push-up bras, sweet talking the people at front desks and enlisting the help of a demoralized but talented professional in the relevant field in order to beat a corrupt and negligent system.
Jamie’s goal is to improve her daughter Malia’s (Emily Alyn Lind) lousy school under what the movie calls the fail-safe law but which in real life is known as the parent-trigger law. A concept that started in California, parent-trigger laws allow parents to intervene by various means when schools are failing, which could including closing the school outright, firing the principal or staff or turning it into a charter. (Six other states have versions of parent-trigger in place, and 12 more states are slated to consider the legislation in the coming months.) Jamie needs to get 50 percent of the parents at Adams Elementary on her side.
I am not sure why director and co-writer Daniel Barnz decided to use the phrase fail-safe rather than parent-trigger, unless it is because he wanted the narrative wiggle room. Under fail-safe Jamie must also get a certain number of the school’s teachers on her side (not the case with parent-trigger laws), a plotting decision that allows for the feel-good aspect of teamwork as Jamie partners with her version of Brockovich’s Albert Finney, teacher Nona Alberts (Viola Davis). The movie is blatantly political and intended as much more than pure entertainment—why else would it have been shown at both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions?—but there is an intermittent coyness about the terminology involved. This is a hot issue, and the filmmakers want the protective cover of fiction. For instance, the word “charter,” rapidly acquiring its own baggage as corporate interests in school privatization come to light, doesn’t get much play even though a charter school is clearly the direction Jamie and Nona hope to take the miserable Adams Elementary. Jamie instead speaks passionately of a “new school.” It might be, she suggests to Nona, a place where children could use the methods of the self-help book The Secret, picturing themselves in college so that they’ll eventually get there.
Oh dear. Nona seems like a very sensible, though depressed woman (a Davis specialty), so you might think she’d show Jamie to the door at that point, but instead they soldier on. Their opponents include Malia’s wretched teacher, Deborah (Nancy Bach), a tenured cow who browses Zappos.com in between texting and telling Malia not to be such a “drama queen,” as well as the unprincipled principal, but mostly, the devils are associated with the local teacher’s union. If you made Bach, Holly Hunter and Ned Eisenberg, who play lying, cheating, greedy union jerks one and two, stand in the lobby of a movie theater just as a screening of Won’t Back Down was getting out, angry patrons would probably tar and feather them. Teachers unions are by no means perfect, but Won’t Back Down turns them into public school enemy number one.
In this sense, and just about every other, Won’t Back Down feels like the dramatization of Waiting for Superman, the provocative 2010 documentary about America’s declining public school system; some scenes, like one involving a lottery for spots in good schools, feel lifted right from that film, but with prettier people. (Lind, the talented little actress who plays Malia, is a miniature version of Elle Fanning, who starred in Barnz’s 2008 film, Phoebe in Wonderland. Like so many movie kids, she’s blonde and angelic.) Both movies were produced in part by Walden Media, Philip Anschutz’s company. But if Waiting for Superman was intended to make audiences think, Won’t Back Down is supposed to make them feel.
It made me feel more annoyed than outraged. The characterizations of the union bosses are absurd. Who outside of Aaron Sorkin’s world stops in the middle of their office full of people who work for a union to speechify about the importance of unions? “Are you not aware of what’s going on in this country?” Eisenberg’s union president bellows at Hunter’s character. “We’re under attack.” Um, she’s pretty clued in. Malia’s teacher is so broadly sketched I half expected Barnz to cut to her pulling out a vibrator, just to bring it to full parody, Bad Teacher style.
(READ: What TIME’s Richard Corliss thought of Erin Brockovich)
But the movie rises and falls on the shoulders of its leading ladies. Davis is as always, a rock solid actress, and through her quiet forcefulness, almost sells a last-minute dramatic revelation about Nona’s dark secret involving her own learning-challenged son. Gyllenhaal gives a very strange, poorly directed performance. Jamie uses the word trepidacious repeatedly—I counted at least three uses of it—and every time I heard it, I thought our hearts are supposed to go out to this secretly vulnerable, blue collar young woman who arms herself with words that sound big and important and yet are painfully inappropriate. As a striver like feisty Erin Brockovich, she is guaranteed to win the audience over, right?
But if that’s what Barnz and Gyllenhaal are aiming for, it’s undercut by how smug Jamie is the rest of the time. She’s Grizzly Bear mama who boasts that she could lift a one-ton truck off her daughter and then some if need be. She’s also over-sexualized in a way that’s extraordinarily insulting. You get the sense that if Jamie has to, she’ll seduce everyone in town to make the charter happen. “You’re going to be so good at this,” she purrs to Nona. As they take stock of the other parents, Jamie tells Nona, “See how bad they want it?” It’s not all-faux sexuality either: “I saw you teach,” she tells the cute teacher everyone calls Sexy Texy (Oscar Isaacs). “You’re really good at it.” Then she tells him he’s got a cute butt. Soon Sexy Texy is sleeping with the slinky single mom, babysitting Malia while Nona and Jamie campaign and re-examining his blind faith in unions.
In all likelihood, Barnz and his co-writer Brin Hill sexed up Jamie Fitzpatrick in an effort to remind us as much as possible of Erin Brockovich, who was in noble pursuit of legal justice for the downtrodden. There’s a big difference though. The Brockovich played by Julia Roberts turned the sexual energy and charm off and on as it suited her; she was in charge. But Jamie’s eyes shine with the fevered energy of one for whom charisma is a goal, not a innate gift, and sex gets you there. This lady inspires mostly trepidation.