It’s surprising that Hollywood would make a film that sympathetically argues for school choice, the movie Won’t Back Down, starring accomplished actresses Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal. It’s not surprising that liberal Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday would then offer a withering one-star review that seemed more like a political judgment than an artistic estimate.
Hornaday huffed: “More than a portrait of spontaneous motherly outrage, it becomes clear that the movie has been designed as an anti-union, pro-charter screed, the fictional counterpart to the 2010 documentary Waiting for Superman.”
Based loosely on the “parent trigger” laws that have passed in California enabling citizens to take control of failing schools, the film blithely passes over the questionable results from those takeovers, just as it glibly ignores the uneven track record of charter schools and the effects of poverty on childhood education, from hungry students who can’t focus to the permanent state of fight-or-flight that makes learning next to impossible.
It’s so much easier to reduce a notoriously complex problem to teachers -- whether they’re idealized or demonized, as they are in “Won’t Back Down.” The grinding, everyday work of being an engaged public school parent -- communicating, negotiating and, yes, sometimes fighting with teachers and principals -- doesn’t hew to an inspiring three-act structure.
The one-step-forward, two-steps-back nature of collaborative reform doesn’t lend itself to a climax featuring plucky heroes wearing green and big bad union guys wearing red. Writer-director Daniel Barnz choreographs that sequence to maximize nail-biting and stirring emotion. But by that time, “Won’t Back Down” has become so didactic that viewers are likely to feel less uplifted than lectured.
Hornaday routinely brings her liberal politics to the task of film reviewing. She despises pro-life movie plots: "American audiences who have been treated to such consoling fictions as Knocked Up and Juno in recent months here finally have an example of filmmaking that dares to be honest about the high stakes of women's reproductive lives."