The film opens with Malia struggling to read while under the scornful disinterest of her teacher and surrounded by equally neglected classmates, who play video games and mock her.
Next, we are introduced to Jamie, single mother of Malia, waking on her sofa in last night’s clothes and makeup, jolted awake by her internal clock out of blissful unconsciousness and into a twenty-second breakfast.
She stirs a shot of diet coke in a mug of cold, instant coffee with her toothbrush handle, throws a poptart in the toaster and snuggles her adorable daughter awake.
This sets the pace for the movie, and as such, it’s no Lean On Me.
This is worth a rental, if nothing else, because of the principles it champions.
It’s a fairly compelling movie that takes us through the process of a single mom holding down two jobs, fighting for her daughter’s education.
It shows the mechanics of turning around a public school, the ins and outs of teachers unions, and while it makes no apologies, it does all this respectfully.
But that’s a heavy burden for any movie to carry, and Won’t Back Down chose the wrong protagonist to saddle the story on.
Most of what we learn about Jamie (Gyllenhaal) is shown in the opening moments of the film: she literally “runs on Dunkin”. She’s stressed out, overwhelmed, and completely in love with her daughter who is helplessly lost in her dysfunctional school.
We also see a very admirable resolve in Jamie, who burns the candle at both ends to rescue her daughter from being bullied, undereducated, and undervalued at the only school she can attend.
But it’s all kind of rah-rah on Jamie’s part. The true, heartbreaking conflict is shown in Viola Davis’s character, Nona.
Nona is a teacher in Adams elementary school where Jamie’s daughter is unfortunate enough to attend. She’s one of a few good teachers left, and her passion has been sacrificed to complacency in order to secure a position for herself and her fellow teachers.
She is also working desperately with her son, trying to prove to him and herself that he does not have a learning disability.
Nona is the more cynical character, having been plugged in to the system and stranded on the sidelines of job security, watching her greatest passions of educating children slowly wither away.
Add to this the fact that she is in the eye of the storm, the leader other teachers are looking to for a resolution, forced to inspire them to let go their fears of job insecurity and cling to the love that made them teachers.
Her change from resigned to impassioned is more than respectable, it is the beating heart of the movie, only the movie doesn’t seem to mind overlooking the fact.
The end result is a decent movie that could have been great.
What I would love to have seen was more of the real cause of Jamie and Nona’s problem. From the start, it’s evident that all the kids at Adams are completely disinterested and embrace the very same apathy they see in their teachers.
Where does this come from? It starts at home.
Children are not loved. It’s either too much discipline, as we see in Nona, or no interest, no involvement at all.
How many adults gripe about their boss on lunch break because they are always cracking a whip, or are completely aloof about the work environment they’ve created?
Now, take that employee and make him a second grader. Do you really think the problem is going to be fixed by an institution?
Don’t get me wrong, teachers have a great responsibility, and I still remember my favorite, who taught me some of life’s most important lessons. The reason I paid attention, so that I could learn at all, was because I believed in myself.
The reason I believed in myself? Because my parents did.
They pushed me to achieve because they wanted me to enjoy that experience. And when I failed, they helped me learn from that too, never judging, always accepting, always nurturing. That’s love not just in feeling but in application.
The real tragedy is the lack of parents’ understanding that their children have value by simply being. That’s called intrinsic value, and it can only be taught at home.