WON’T BACK DOWN
Directed by: Daniel Barnz
Written by: Brin Hill and Daniel Barnz
Starring: Viola Davis, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Oscar Isaac, Ving Rhames, Rosie Perez, Holly Hunter, Lance Reddick, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Emily Alyn Lind, Dante Brown
Social injustices and fighting for what’s right are the topics Hollywood dreams of at night. Studios love to lend a platform to tell profound human interest stories viewers can find on their local news and on HBO’s “Real Sports”. It’s what audiences respond to and what translates into millions of dollars. A few years ago, THE BLIND SIDE led the resurgence of “the feel good film” genre. Before that, rallying cries were led by ERIN BROCKOVICH and NORMA RAE. Also inspired by true life events, co-writer/ director Daniel Barnz has gifted us with WON’T BACK DOWN, a film that gives voice to the plight of two strong-willed women on a mission to change a decaying urban school system. Is this the social injustice barn burner of a film it strives desperately to be? Not really. Is it inspirational and a genuine crowd pleaser? Yes. Well, to a certain extent.
After her dyslexic daughter Malia (Emily Alyn Lind) is humiliated at her Pittsburgh public school, single mom Jamie Fitzpatrick (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is at the end of her rope. Having found no caring soul on the school’s staff to kvetch to, she takes matters into her own hands by entering Malia into a lottery for a scholarship at bright, shiny Rosa Parks Elementary School. At the name drawing, Jamie meets cute her future kindred spirit Nona Alberts (Viola Davis), who just happens to be a frustrated teacher at Malia’s school. You see, Nona too is having problems with her son Cody’s (Dante Brown) education. He’s been acting out in class because of his learning disability. When their names aren’t called (who’d of seen that coming?), these two women, from very different walks of life, must unite to fight an uphill battle against teachers, unions, and the school board in order to get what their kids rightfully deserve – a good education. Needless to say, threats and granstanding speeches ensue.
My problem with the film is it strays from one of my biggest cinematic pet peeves: show me, don’t tell me. Co-writer Brin Hill and Barnz’s script bombards the audience with statistics in a non-palatable way – feeling forced and not organic. At a few key points, the message being delivered (via a baseball bat to viewer’s head) veers into the “too preachy” territory. Heavy handed analogies to war are peppered throughout the film. The sound of rifles shooting play under the opening scene set in a classroom. The motif is again repeated – this time visually – when Nona and Jamie shoot Nerf guns at school board pictures. It’s war out there, people. And they are fighting the good fight! We get it. Over-familiar script beats adhere strictly to a “paint-by-numbers” format where the audience knows what will happen around every corner. We all can predict the challenges and obstacles that will present themselves over the course of this journey.
Despite the film’s maladies, there’s enough here to earns it a passing grade. The film’s subject matter will be intensely relatable for many frustrated parents feeling their kids too are being left behind. This isn’t just about one school but it’s a problem of many. But can this be done realistically throughout the nation? Maybe, but perhaps WAITING FOR SUPERMAN can best answer that question. Strong, assured performances from Gyllenhaal, Davis and Isaacs. Gyllenhaal and Isaacs exude a palpable chemistry that steams up the screen. Roman Osin’s cinematography sparkles helping to augment the tale. As our story begins, our outlook is gray and gritty. However, once the ladies start their David vs. Goliath battle, rich color saturation creeps back into the landscape. Director Barnz effuses the picture with an elegant visual artistry in telling the run-of-the-mill narrative. When the ladies go door to door collecting parents’ signatures, camerawork is fluid and striking. Our introduction to Rosa Parks Elementary School is one long steadicam shot – with no cuts. And the film’s final shot (which may strike some viewers as cheesy) suckered me in with it’s powerful hook.
Crumbling under it’s semi-cheap devices, this is not something I think savvy audiences will gravitate towards. What you saw in the two-and-a-half minute trailer is exactly what you get spread out in a 121 minute film. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing, I would have liked to have seen more depth and dimension added to this relevant hot topic.