The names Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal lend the new film Wont Back Down an undeserved illusion of prestige. The film, an unmasked anti-union, pro-charter attack, never manages to rise above its tired and deeply manipulative roots.
The truth is, the film's politics would be a non-issue if the story held up, offered something new, or even presented the information in a non-pedantic manner. Instead, the film often feels like a thinly veiled lecture with a few loose characters mixed in.
What ensues next is the classic David and Goliath story. Nona and Jamie join forces to put those parent trigger laws to use, and turn Adams Elementary into the school they always dreamed of. In the process, the plot even finds time for a love story between Jamie and a teacher named Michael (Oscar Isaac), whose ukelele playing in the classroom is seemingly irresistible. It should be noted that Michael is the only sympathetic character in the film to express pro-union sentiments.
Nona and Jamie embark upon a very energized plan to change Adams Elementary but the details of said plan are never really divulged. It appears the students will learn Shakespeare, and the lockers will be painted brighter colors, but that’s really all we learn. What emerges as the obstacle to this Utopian dream is the fictitious union the Teachers Asssociation of Pennsylvania or TAP. TAP is depicted as an evil empire, a corporate nemesis who stoops to character attacks on Nona all in an effort to keep Adams Elementary just as it is. The moral being, unions do not care about the children.
There are ways Won’t Back Down could have succeeded: stronger writing for instance, or the removal of Holly Hunter from the cast. And it should be said that the failings of the film are no fault of Gyllenhaal or Davis who both give committed and convincing performences. But Won’t Back Down gets lost in its schmaltzy narrative and backed up against the same problems unions and teachers face in the real world; no one can figure out how to fix these schools.