Won’t Back Down
Plot description: Two determined mothers, one a teacher, look to transform their children’s failing inner city school. Facing a powerful and entrenched bureaucracy, they risk everything to make a difference in the education and future of their children.
Starring Viola Davis, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Holly Hunter
I wanted to see Won’t Back Down for a glimpse of how Hollywood treats the school reform movement. Set in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the movie is “Inspired by real events,” the opening credits claim. This film is, in a sense, a fictionalized sequel to Waiting for Superman: It begins with a failing public school and the disappointment of a lottery for a charter school.
How bad is John Adams Elementary? Kids play video games in class while the teacher texts on her cell phone, and struggling students are locked up in broom closets. (Hey, this stuff happens.).
What follows the failure of the lottery is the uphill battle by determined single parent Jamie Fitzpatrick (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and sometimes wavering teacher Nona Alberts (Viola Davis) to “take over” the school and, in essence, bust the all-powerful teacher’s union and force a vote before the all-indifferent school board before the end of the school year.
Since teachers must abandon their union contracts to work in the school John Adams will become, the hidebound teacher’s union becomes the convenient villain. (For some reason, teachers at John Adams couldn’t stay one minute after school let out because of union rules. If such rules exist, they should be changed immediately.) Holly Hunter is lost in this movie. She’s assigned the role of a union official, but she doesn’t seem to know whether she’s playing Norma Rae or Ophelia.
The crusading parent, driven to the breaking point over the treatment of her dyslexic second-grade daughter, does a good job of being pushy and obnoxious. She must deal with a prototypical bad teacher who doesn’t have a personality (other than a certain surly apathy) but serves mainly as a symbol of what’s wrong with schools these days. Of course, she goes by the book when it comes to union rules. Nona Alberts, the reformist teacher, also has a child with some learning disabilities and must also cope with the breakup of her marriage.
Nona faces reprisals (for doing what the school’s administration demanded in the first place) and character assassination. Jamie falls for a ukulele-playing hunk of a teacher who performs all his lesson plans.
The movie’s climax comes when the parents march down to try and force a vote on their school takeover before the Board of Education. I marveled at the dynamics of Won’t Back Down’s school board, which went into executive session for three hours on the issue before returning to announce its decision without bothering to vote.
Memo to reformers: Bring a lawyer.
As Mark Twain once noted, “In the beginning, God made idiots. This was for practice. Then He made school boards.”
Will the good-hearted parents and teachers prevail? Hint:, this is Hollywood!
The script is earnest and formulaic; the outcome is predictable. As you might expect, complex issues are glossed over. The roles of budget cutbacks and failed federal policy are largely ignored, other than to note that teachers must buy school supplies for their classes (which is, unfortunately, the norm). By the way, John Adams showed no sign of a PTA or PTO –which would be the first step parents should take to improve their kids’ school.
I suspect that Metro Atlanta, with its surplus of accreditation-challenged school systems, may be one of the movie’s most lucrative markets.
Is Won’t Back Down worth seeing? Yes, although you might want to wait for the DVD.
About the author: Jonathan Grant, a former PTA president and local school council member, is the author of Chain Gang Elementary. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia. For more information about the book, visit www.chaingang.elementary.com