Saturday, September 29

REVIEW: Won't Back Down

Directed by Daniel Barnz
2 hours 1 minute
From 20th Century Fox
and Walden Media

Maggie Gyllenhaal
Viola Davis
Oscar Isaac
Marianne Jean-Baptiste
Lance Reddick
Rosie Perez
Ving Rhames
Holly Hunter

One couldn't ask for a subject more topical.  Sometimes that makes for popular movies, sometimes it doesn't.  The fate of this one is yet to be determined.  It may not be entertaining enough for some, the subject matter being a little dry.  It might feel like watching the evening news.

The education system is in the spotlight here.  We have just been  listening to the Chicago teachers' strike issues.  Education is a frequent topic of the two political candidates.  We all know that education is suffering in this country and we don't rank as high in the world order as we would like. 

Most of us get inspired by David and Goliath stories.  It is so satisfying to see the little guy take on big corporations or the government and win, although the problem usually is you know who wins in the end and it becomes a bit formulaic.

A single mother, not exactly rolling in the dough, gets miffed when she feels her daughter's teacher and indeed the entire school and ultimately school system is not coming through for her kid.  The kid is dyslexic and being picked on.  The mother enlists the aid of another teacher at the school whose son is also having learning difficulties.  With hard work, grit and enlisting the aid of others, they set out to right a wrong.  They want it known that the school is under-performing and that kids must come first... before teachers, before parents, before school rules and regulations.  It's a tough fight.  If it weren't, it wouldn't be much of a film.

Maggie Gyllenhaal plays the mother as formidable, gutsy and relentless and the role seemed to fit her like a glove.  As the teacher Viola Davis had the right blend of doubt that turns into a give-em-hell mission that puts her side by side with the mother.  Davis was the main reason I wanted to see this film.  I have seen most of her work and have always been touched by her humanity, her innate kindness which continues to shine through even when she is being tough-minded.  Those traits remind me of Alfre Woodard and before her Cicely Tyson and before her two wonderful character actresses, Beah Richards and Juanita Moore.  This is a good followup role to Davis' exemplary work in The Help.  May she charm me forever.

The subject matter should stir up folks. Anyone with a passion for education, anyone with a passion for education reform, anyone whose children go to a school that is not up to par, anyone with children who aren't doing well in school, anyone with a child suffering with disabilities should feel their blood boiling a bit. I read yesterday that this film has stirred up talk (good!) and controversy (better yet) and even protests (hallelujah).  It seems that some have found the story to be anti-union and anti-teacher (tenure and pay issues are discussed).  My own take is the film tried to stay as apolitical as possible while remaining true to its theme of pro-child.  If others take a hit in that endeavor, maybe it's the way it must be.

Director Barnz is from a family of educators and has said that he was passionate about making a film that shows teachers and parents coming together for the common good of the child's education.

While the story is based on a true incident, the Fail Safe law that is mentioned in the film is not a true one but it is similar to the Parent Trigger law that is on the books in a few states that says if there is a failing school and 50% of the parents come together, they can decide the fate of the school.

It's not all heavy-handed material.  Thankfully we come to learn more about the two women.  The mother has a romance with one of the teachers, Oscar Isaac, whom she also wants to help her in her mission, and we get a glimpse into the teacher's life as she struggles with mothering issues.  It gave us more insight into both women which, in turns, allows us to root for them more.

All technical credits are good.  The rest of the cast fell right into step with the lead actresses with a special shout-out to Marianne Jean-Baptiste as school board chairperson.  It was a moving, well-told story.

NEXT POSTING:  Favorite Film #26

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