Why ‘Won’t Back Down’ matters

Won’t Back Down is a predictable movie that resemble an after-school special, writes Andrew Rotherham in Time. It’s no Citizen Kane. But a Hollywood movie on the parent trigger matters a great deal. The education debate will not be the same.

Despite its sugary Hallmark quality, Won’t Back Down is a serious film about a grim reality — parents and teachers stuck in a system that puts kids last. (Maggie) Gyllenhaal plays Jamie Fitzpatrick, a mom struggling to help her daughter while juggling all the other balls a single mom must keep in the air — work, life, flickering hope of romance. Her daughter’s dysfunctional school is a roadblock to a better future for her, and Fitzpatrick is determined to fix that. She enlists the help of a frustrated teacher (Viola Davis) to try to force the school board to improve the school under a district rule giving parents the ability to force action.

The film also has some nuance, unlike the blunt force trauma that tends to dominate education debates. A Teach For America teacher is portrayed not as a caricature of a noble savior or unwitting dupe but rather as a serious young person struggling to make sense of the conflicting values he encounters in a screwed-up urban school system. Played by Oscar Isaac, this teacher tries to reconcile his belief in unions as a tool of social justice with the jobs-and-adults-first reality he finds in his school district.

In the face of union opposition, the movie’s stars aren’t backing down, Rotherham writes.

On Monday’s Today Show, Oscar nominee Viola Davis made clear that she understands firsthand how important education is in breaking the cycle of poverty. She grew up poor and seems to have little patience for those resisting efforts to improve public school. “It’s a system that’s broken and needs to be fixed,” she said on the show.

The movie’s opponents — “teachers unions carping that the movie is unfair and activists claiming that giving parents more power is akin to privatization” — have turned Won’t Back Down “into a national conversation piece,” Rotherham writes. Even those who don’t believe parents can run schools are talking about what can be done when children are trapped in low-performing schools.

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