Okay, here’s the thing: I hate education movies. Hate them. Haaaaaaaaaaate them. Even the good ones. Even the ones I like, I hate. They’re always about the super-teacher who comes in and changes everyone’s life, and now, at last, Everything’s Gonna Be Okay!
And this is why I hate them.
For the entirety of my life, schools have been failing. No number of Jaime Escalantes or Joe Clarks or, uh, Robin Williamses or Michelle Pfeiffers—none of the dozens of movies or trillions of dollars has changed this.
They’re a big lie.
So, I didn’t have any real intention to see Won’t Back Down because, besides being an education movie, the trailers feature Maggie Gyllenhall being really obnoxious in that I-am-woman-hear-me-roar kind of way. I mean, why torture yourself, right?
Well, The Flower wanted to see a movie. And the thing about Won’t Back Down is that all the right people hate it. It’s supposedly anti-union. Well, I hate unions even more than I hate education movies. What a dilemma, right?
As always in these cases, popcorn is the tie-breaker, and there was good popcorn to be had.
Well, I didn’t hate it. It isn’t really about a super-teacher, which is one of the main things that irritates me. It’s basically the story of a mom (Gyllenhall) and a teacher (Viola Davis) who set out to turn around a failing school in a poor area of Pittsburgh. They’re fought at every step by the union, city hall and parental apathy.
Fortunately, Gyllenhall’s most clunkily strident moments are in the trailer. And there are a few clunkers here.
But overall, this is a pretty solid movie. It’s ridiculously naive, of course: The movie’s climax necessarily revolves around the two heroines jumping through all the right hoops in time to get a hearing where they know the school council will use any excuse to reject their application. Of course, in real life, if they thought you were going to be trouble they’d approve you at the meeting, and find an excuse after everyone had gone home to reject you.
And then, of course, even if you managed to navigate the bureaucracy, the various lackeys of the bureaucracy (which you are forced to deal with) would sabotage you at every turn. Battles against The Machine are marathons, not sprints.
But sprints make better movies so that’s what we get here. And that’s good, because the underlying message is a positive one: That people can get off their own damn asses and get themselves a school that doesn’t suck.
Now, keeping in mind that I hate unions, I didn’t think this was particularly anti-union—said stance being the reason for the critic hate (32%/61% on Rotten Tomatoes), but union people are definitely villain in this. They resist, intimidate, smear, and use every dirty trick in the book to stop this from happening—obviously a complete fantasy, right? But at least half the teachers have to sign up in order for this to happen at all, and there’s a definite message that the vast majority of teachers are in it to teach (rather than the money). And core union figures/bureaucrats also have to support this in order for it to happen.
You don’t really know how it’s going to play out, which provides the primary dramatic tension for this film. There are personal things between Gyllenhaal and her daughter and Viola Davis and her husband and son, but these are not very strong. I can’t quite explain why, but when the personal sacrifices are more abstract, it’s actually more effective than when they’re played out on-screen.
And it is pretty devastating, even without much in the way of showing the worst of how these schools grind children down, because you can’t help but notice how many barriers there are to children actually learning. There are just so many reasons a kid has to sit in a class with a teacher who’s so bad, she’s been removed from six other schools. Teachers need fair pay, after all, right?
This is all the logical endpoint of the “people are entitled to” thought process. Instead of a buyer and seller engaging in a contract they both agree on, an arbitrary third party gets to decide what the “buyer” gets and insulate the “seller” from the consequences thereof.
But I digress. Like I said: I didn’t hate it. Neither did The Boy. We were generally positive toward it, perhaps because our expectations were low going in. The acting was pretty good: Primarily Gyllenhaal and Davis doing roles that seem well-worn for them, Holly Hunter, Rosie Perez (who seems to have taken some diction lessons) and youngster Emily Alyn Lind. Also some guys, but they’re not really integral to the story.
It’s already bombed, which isn’t really fair, but that’s showbiz for ya. I can’t really rave about it but you could do a lot worse.