Thursday, September 13, 2012

Movie Review - Won't Back Down

This review contains spoilers

Jamie (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a poor single mom who's daughter Malia attends the neighborhood elementary school. The school has been failing for 19 years, her daughter (a 3rd grader) can't read and has a teacher who completely ignores her class to shop on the internet. Nona is a teacher at the same school. Former teacher of the year is teaching a class of bored disengaged students. She's become world weary, her marriage is falling apart, and her son who she has enrolled in a different public school across town is failing miserably. They couldn't be more different, based on how they dress, their homes, how they raise their children Nona for instance doesn't allow candy or TV on weekdays, Jamie brings Malia over with a DVD player so they can be entertained and is shocked that Nona doesn't allow such a thing. The movie does a great job at pointing out just how different they are.

The reason they get together is because Jamie can't get her daughter into a better school or class and just happens to learn about the parent trigger law where a school that is failing can be taken over by the teachers and parents. The movie is set in Pittsburgh which doesn't have a parent trigger law. The only state where such a law exists in California. The two band together, Nona requires a ton of coaxing, and decide to see if they can get the support they need to get it in front of the board, like Hollywood magic of course they get it done in a few months instead of the years it realistically should take, even the people who explain what they need say it takes years to get to that point but you know its Hollywood. The thing is the movie can't decide who's the villain in the film, the school board who won't pass it or the teacher's union who is very much against it. The movie isn't completely anti-union. There's a scene with Jamie's boyfriend, Michael also a teacher at Adam’s Elementary and probably the most well liked person in the school where he explains who unions exist when they helped a good teacher keep his job. He's the voice of reason even if Jamie is more interested in making out with him than listening.

The movie is clearly trying to make a point but it gets lost along the way. It's great at pulling the heart strings, when Nona's son comes home with blood on his shirt after being pushed around by the other kids at his school where they call him slow she makes so hard choices and the woman sitting next to me was hysterical crying. When the teacher's union launches a smear campaign against Nona and we see why she is so overprotective of him you get how she got to where she was. Viola Davis plays this part with heart and you feel her emotion, as a person the explore her character but leave so many others cliches of themselves. I couldn't make myself like Jamie no matter how hard I tried, she's headstrong, she seems to want to help her daughter but she doesn't see the “greater good” or how not everyone wants what she wants. Even her Malia's absolutely horrible teacher who everyone hates, Jamie doesn't see why she wouldn't want these changes. You do at least feel for Nona, she's liked by her coworkers till they find out she's helping Jamie with the school takeover plan. She has a principal she can't stand one who gets it in his head she's aiming for his job, more magic, but hey we aren't taking prisoners here. Ving Rhames has a tiny part as the Principal of the coveted Charter school, Holly Hunter who plays the Head of the teacher’s union although later she seems to not be, daughter of union parents, Evelyn tries to make all these issues go away, she offers to give Malia a full scholarship to the fancy private school that half of the board sends their children to, She's got some board members in her pocket but of course she experiences a crisis of conscience when the attacks on Nona happen without her consent.

Now these being a Hollywood movie, they of course in a gripping vote manage to get it passed, Jamie makes this startling revelation that she's dyslexic just like her daughter, and they open their school where sure enough Malia can magically read. At that point I totally want to throw my hands up and slap my neighbor.

I give this movie a Redbox. Its not amazing, but I can see why some love it. It didn't make me cry or even feel overwhelmingly moved because I could see the pandering a mile away. I was more moved by The Lottery which is an excellent documentary about the character school system and the lives of a set of families who all try for the well regarded NYC charter school. This is dressed up to push an agenda but its clumsy. They had lots to work with but just didn't feel like bothering its unfocused and thats what keeps it from being a must see.

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