Won’t Back Down is a button-pushing crowd-pleaser that demonizes teacher unions as the domain of timid souls more interested in protecting their turf and financial interests than in steering children to bright futures. Given how the film lionizes rebel schools and the plucky single parents pushing for progress at all costs, it’s an inspirational teacher movie for a post-Waiting For Superman era. (It’s probably no coincidence the film comes from Walden Media, the same company behind Davis Guggenheim’s controversial documentary about charter schools.) The film’s heavy-handed anti-union agenda wouldn’t be quite so grating if it emerged organically from the narrative, but the film regularly devolves into a dry cinematic op-ed with thinly developed characters making didactic speeches articulating the issues involved in the knotty, emotionally charged subject of school choice.
Maggie Gyllenhaal brings her usual squirrely intensity to the live-wire role of a struggling single mother devoted to providing the best possible education for her dyslexic daughter. When her daughter fails to get into a charter school, Gyllenhaal joins forces with an unhappy teacher (Viola Davis) and attempts to revitalize a failing school system, much to the chagrin of a powerfully entrenched teacher’s union. Union head Holly Hunter isn’t above using smear tactics, de facto bribes, and other dirty tricks in attempting to undermine Gyllenhaal and Davis.
Won’t Back Down makes a token attempt to humanize the pro-union contingent, but it’s ultimately less interested in providing a balanced take on a complicated issue than in neatly delineating between heroes and villains, selfless souls willing to sacrifice everything for their children and scared union members with a sick fetish for professional and financial security. As a catalyst for social change, Gyllenhaal radiates dogged conviction, while Davis has a handful of powerhouse scenes where the formidable defenses her character has built up to survive a traumatic past give way to vulnerability and something approaching despair. The film’s clumsy sloganeering, however, largely defeats the leads’ fine efforts. And the nauseatingly maudlin ending betrays the formulaic manipulation lurking behind the film’s thinly applied coat of gritty, timely faux-realism.