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Despite movement toward greater government control over education, most parents know that their children’s education should be and is ultimately up to them. Parents choose their children’s schools, help with homework, and, ideally, enforce teachers’ instruction in the home. For some families, poor quality of public education, special needs, or other circumstances lead to the choice to homeschool. But what about the single parent who has to work outside the home or parents who didn’t receive enough education themselves to equip them to teach their own kids?
In Won’t Back Down, one such parent finds herself stuck in the worst situation—with a dismal public school that perpetuates illiteracy and underachievement as the only education option for her daughter. Well-acted and produced, this film makes the grade in several important subjects, offering multiple examples of strong parenting and love, as well as exploring education ideals and reminding viewers of the selfless heart of teaching.
Yet in a film about parents and teachers who sacrifice to fight for their children, it’s disappointing and ironic that so little thought is given to making the film appropriate for young viewers. Foul language, excessive drinking in bars, and several comments of sexual innuendo ensure that parents who want to wade through this content themselves will have to leave the kids at home.
When single mom Jamie Fitzpatrick looks through the classroom window one morning, she begins to understand why her dyslexic daughter, Malia, is falling even farther behind in her reading and emotionally shutting down toward the idea of learning. Jamie is unaware that Malia’s teacher is by far the worst at Adams Elementary, but it’s painfully obvious that the teacher cares nothing for her students or her job.
Inspired by her daughter’s difficulties in this class, Jamie tries to have Malia transferred to another teacher within Adams. This effort launches Jamie into her first collision with the system that governs Adams, a school that has become ignominious as the district’s dumping ground for doomed students. A mess of rules and regulations mean that Malia cannot change classes, just as they also ensure that the quality of Adams will continue to deteriorate.
Jamie is not a person who gives up easily, especially when it comes to protecting her daughter’s interests. With guts and unceasing determination, Jamie initially fights to find some way to get her daughter into a better school or even a different class. In the process, she comes across a new and bigger idea—to start a new school. In actuality, this “new” school is an attempt to revamp Adams into a successful vehicle for education.
Other parents and teachers have had the idea before, of course, but the union and public school system set up a series of loopholes and roadblocks designed to make such revolutionaries give up before even getting a few steps toward the goal of a redone school. But this system has never met Jamie. The determined woman enlists the partnership of Nona Alberts, a disillusioned Adams teacher who also has a young son, struggling to learn. The two ladies make a formidable team as they prepare to take on the failing system no matter the consequences and, for the cause of their children’s future, to win.
In a culture in which busy parents may be too inclined to think that their child’s education is the school’s responsibility, Won’t Back Down takes a counter-cultural stance by promoting the crucial role that parents must play to ensure a positive and effective education. Though poor and working two jobs, Jamie makes her daughter’s education and seeking aide for Malia’s dyslexia her number-one priority.
Jamie does not care if her effort to seek help for Malia affects the way that other adults see or treat her, nor does she let the prospect of inevitable conflict with others defeat her effort to do what is right. The example Jamie sets in this regard is a valuable one for all areas of life, as one must sometimes fight to do right in a world of wrongs.
Because love for Malia is Jamie’s driving motivation for her actions, Jamie also becomes a laudable representation of parenting, at least in her commitment to putting her child’s greater good before her own. [MILD SPOILER WARNING] Even when Malia turns on Jamie and, with childish reasoning, lashes out at her mother for her efforts, Jamie demonstrates an impeccable loving kindness, compassion, and forgiveness for her little girl—not yelling back or confronting Malia in return, as parents do in too many modern films.
The positive examples of parenting are doubled in the movie’s other central family, the Alberts. Nona is another mother driven by love for her child, and she illustrates that emotion by making a gut-wrenching sacrifice for his own good. While Nona is not a perfect mom, she has the courage and honesty to admit her past mistakes and try to make amends. Nona displays a similar attitude toward teaching, as she sees how Adams drove her to do her job halfheartedly and realizes that her own classroom approach needs an overhaul.
Thus, Nona becomes part of a strong opposition for any viewer who thinks this film might be out to criticize teachers. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are one or two teachers in the movie who do not do their jobs well or even care about education at all, but these characters are merely present to show the difference between a pseudo-teacher, someone who is there only for job security and a paycheck, and the real thing. The actual heart of teaching, the desire to inspire and shape children for brilliant futures, is exemplified in the majority of teachers portrayed in the film, and it is these true teachers who join with parents to save Adams and its students.
Unions do not come out quite so completely without blemish. Despite the film’s attempt to represent both sides of the teachers’ union vs. teachers’ and parents’ freedoms issue, the union has a mostly villainous countenance. The criticisms against the union in Won’t Back Down, however, may largely address concerns that were only relevant with the union policies that were in place at the time of the “actual events” that inspired this picture.
Regardless, the problems with Won’t Back Down have nothing to do with public education politics. Jamie and Nona, for example, may be inspiring parents, but when their kids are not present, they often fail to uphold behavior worth emulating. Jamie is generally kind and can be very friendly when trying to persuade people, but she is quick to become hostile, flippant, and angry with adults who cross her. She and Nona are also guilty of much of the film’s offensive language and crudities, which include misusing God’s name several times, as well as “a--,” “d--n,” “h---,” “b--tard,” “jeez,” and Nona telling her principal to “go screw himself.”
Jamie also makes several innuendo-laden remarks while flirting with one of the teachers. While most of these scenes show Jamie without her daughter present, she does tell Malia in one scene that “luck is a foxy lady.” In addition, Jamie sometimes dresses immodestly, wearing low-cut tops and tight pants.
Many of the otherwise positive characters in the story are also portrayed as drinkers. Jamie and her boyfriend have clearly drunk too much alcohol in one scene, and they both discuss how their behavior alters when intoxicated. In another sequence, the teachers from Adams gather at a bar to celebrate, and they all appear to have had more than a moderate amount of alcohol.
Several of these content issues might be less of a concern if this were not a PG-rated film, dressed to appear like a good choice for families looking to watch a movie together. So much offensive language does not belong in a PG picture and makes Won’t Back Down completely inappropriate for young viewers. Perhaps, however, the filmmakers may not have intended for this film to be for families at all.
Though well-written, the story deals with mature and detailed information regarding school systems, unions, politics, and the like. Such subject matter may be realistic, but it is likely to interest only adults and bore anyone below the age of eighteen. This tale is also told primarily through the perspective of the two parents, Jamie and Nona, despite beginning with one scene from Malia’s point of view.
A few moments in the film are clichéd and manipulative, but the screenplay is otherwise engaging, entertaining, and emotionally moving. Achieving the desired effect on the audience is largely due to the performances from two power-house leads. The two Oscar-nominated actors, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis, play Jamie and Nona, respectively, each actor living up to her critically-acclaimed reputation with gripping portrayals. Emily Alyn Lind also gives a winning showing as the third-grader, Malia.
Won’t Back Down lives up to its title in a brave promotion of parental rights and effort to fix a broken establishment. This movie embraces ideals for education that some viewers may not believe are possible, but, as long as this country’s constitution remains the same, it’s up to parents to find the education that is best for their children.
Even more important than education, Won’t Back Down shows the importance of protecting children, selflessly pursuing the good of others over one’s own, and standing firm for what is right, no matter the cost. Yet with the sexuality and offensive language this film also contains, viewers won’t have the pleasure of enjoying the positive elements without interference. Won’t Back Down may be about fighting for kids, but, make no mistake, this is a film for parents and teachers, not their children.