As the lights dimmed and the opening credits rolled during my preview of ‘Won’t Back Down,’ I got a little nervous. Based on some of the commercials I had seen, I thought there was a chance that it was going to be a good ‘film.’ I do think that a good film could be made about any subject, even one I might not agree with its underlying premise.
I loved, for example, ‘Seabiscut,’ even though I think that horse racing is barbaric and the gambling that goes along with it can destroy the lives of many poor people. But the movie was great. It had a great script, high drama, suspense, and an inspirational message. I also loved ‘Shine’ despite my piano teacher telling me that the ‘Rach 3’ is not the hardest piano piece ever written and that the actual man the movie was based on is actually a very mediocre musician. A great movie is a great movie, even when ‘dramatic license’ is taken.
I am also a big fan of movies about teaching. Some are a bit cheesy, for sure, but I usually find them entertaining, regardless. I think the best one is probably ‘Stand And Deliver,’ even though much of what happened in that one was quite inaccurate.
I had read some things about ‘Won’t Back Down,’ going into it, and I knew about some of the flaws, but I had not seen a critique of the quality of it as a ‘film,’ separate from the message. In a few weeks when the movie is officially released, the newspapers are not going to be fact-checking whether or not the movie is based on truth, but how it holds up as a movie.
I’m a huge movie buff and just as I have strong opinions about the ed reform movement, I’ve always been a demanding movie goer. With this context, I was relieved that this movie was poorly done. Some of the acting was pretty good, but they could not overcome the illogical and amateurish script.
The movie is about a mother, Jamie Fitzpatrick, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal. Her child, who has Dyslexia, is a new second grader at Adams Elementary School in Pittsburgh. Jamie is a single mother who works at a car dealership and a bartender. We learn, right away, that her child has a bad teacher. As she struggles to read the word ‘story,’ the teacher has her cell phone out and is constantly texting on it. In a room down the hall, another teacher Nona Alberts, played by Viola Davis, has lost her enthusiasm for teaching, though her class is certainly better than the other teacher. Nona’s son is also a student at Adams Elementary. Adams seems to be about 70% White, and the parents, in general, seem to be middle class to lower middle class. The school, evidently, doesn’t have special services for students with Dyslexia. Adams Elementary, they say, has gotten an ‘F’ for nineteen years in a row, even though schools have only been getting these kind of letter ratings for the past couple of years. 7 out of 10 students will leave Adams not knowing how to read. Only 2% of the students from Adams will graduate college.
When Jamie tells her daughter that she needs to hurry so they are not late for school, the daughter says “This school doesn’t care.” Then Jamie asks the teacher if she would be willing to stay after school to work with the daughter and the teacher says that school ends at 3:00. Nona’s son is also struggling at the school, despite Nona’s efforts to tutor her son at home.
Jamie attends a lottery for the Rosa Parks Charter school and is surprised to see Nona there trying to get her son in. The charter lottery is unrealistic as 80% of the families are white and middle class.
In the teacher’s lounge back at Adams we learn that Nona has been, at the request of the principal, falsifying the attendance records. Since they can’t pass the kids on if they don’t attend class, she erases the absences for the principal and all the teachers are aware of this. Why Nona agrees to do this instead of simply reporting the principal, which would certainly get him fired, they never answer.
Jamie goes to speak to the superintendent, but isn’t allowed to. Instead she chats with one of the secretaries there and learns about the ‘fair choice’ law — a dramatized version of the ‘parent trigger’ — which has one incredible difference. Half the 800 parents AND half the 36 teachers have to sign the petition to ‘turn around’ the school. The ‘turnaround’ will be based on the charter that they create, so it is not, as I had thought before seeing the movie, that they would be turned over to a charter network.
Jamie goes to the school the next day to ask Nona if she will lead the effort to get the signatures of the staff. There is a meeting the next morning and Jamies asks “can’t you take a sick day” to come to the meeting. Nona does (something that would have gotten her fired in reality) and they decide to give it a shot. It is rough going at first. Jamie visits a handsome young Teach For America teacher who we learn is great because his classes are often line dancing while he sings songs about going to college. He is reluctant to sign on because he ‘just wants to teach’ and supports the union. We learn that his favorite teacher when he was a student was nearly fired for showing his class the movie ‘Hair’ and the union protected the teacher from being fired unfairly. That was why he became a teacher, he said, which makes it puzzling why he did TFA rather than a degree in education.
As they start to get more support from parents and then the teachers, the major logical flaw in the movie surfaces. All we ever see is the one ‘bad’ teacher in the school. When they finally get past the 18 teachers needed to sign the petition, I realized that the movie was not a movie about bad teachers. A movie about a school overrun by bad teachers and a corrupt administration could actually make a good movie, I think. But the crazy thing about this movie was that the teachers, except for that one, were all good teachers who desperately wanted to do a better job. And the only way they could do a better job would be if they got this charter approved because (you’re not going to believe this) THE UNION CONTRACT FORBIDS THESE TEACHERS FROM STAYING AFTER SCHOOL TO WORK WITH THEIR STUDENTS. I am not kidding. Throughout the movie they remind us of this. I kept thinking that if these teachers are so frustrated that they aren’t teaching as well as they can, why don’t they just do a better job planning? Does this union contract, which they tell us is 600 pages long, also forbid these teachers from planning at home at night? Also, in contrast to the ‘bad’ teachers cliche, this school has at least half of the teachers being highly motivated. So, again, the conflict in this movie is that all these great teachers do not have the freedom to stay after school if they want to, which is why the school is failing. There is never any other mention of something else in the union contract that prevents them from doing their best job teaching. And their charter plan has things in it that nothing was preventing them from doing already, like having 5th graders read Shakespeare. The new school can’t be union “because our contract has too many restrictions.”
As they gain momentum, and it seems that they might get the signatures they need, the union starts to fight back. The second in charge at the union, played by Holly Hunter, tells Jamie that if she gives up the fight, she will help her daughter get a scholarship to an expensive private school. Jamie refuses.
Meanwhile, the principal calls Nona to her office and asks if she has altered the attendance records for him. When she says yes, he informs her that this is illegal and fires her. At this point of the movie I almost screamed out “Good thing she’s in the union,” but I didn’t. If this really happened, the teacher and the principal would both be, justifiably, fired.
The hearing with the board finally comes. It is known that the board is very union-friendly, which is in stark contrast to the hand-picked boards in cities like New York that have mayoral control. The charter is initially denied, but when one of the board members explains that he voted ‘no’ because one of the line items said something would cost $413,000 instead of $134,000, he could not trust them to run a school. Jamie announces that this is because she has Dyslexia and then they have a new vote and the charter passes. Then, in an over-directed moment, Jamie looks right into the camera and reminds us not to forget that this is “for the kids.” Fast forward one year and the school is a completely different place with all the same teachers, it seemed, except that one, now that they have the freedom to stay after school if they want to.
This movie failed on so many levels. Many posts have already been written about the inaccuracy and how it is disingenuous to flash the words “inspired by true events” near the beginning of the movie. But movie viewers and critics don’t really care about that. So I was actually pleased with how bad of a movie it was from a strictly movie-critic angle.
One and a half stars.