When I was in New York for a blogging conference in August, I had the opportunity to attend a red carpet screening of Won’t Back Down. Following the screening, there was a Q&A session with actresses Viola Davis, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Rosie Perez, and the director. I didn’t know much about the movie going in to it, other than it was about a failing school system, and I was blown away by both the performances and the quality of the content in it; this film is going to be a serious contender when awards season rolls around.
Jamie (Maggie Gyllenhaal, Hysteria) works two jobs to support herself and her daughter, Malia (Emily Alyn Lind, TV’s Revenge). She would like to send Malia to a private school, because her current school is awful, but she can’t afford it. Nona (Viola Davis, The Help) works as a teacher – one of the only good teachers, actually – at Malia’s school, and has a son. Both Nona and Jamie would like to see the school improved, but the only way to do it is to take control of the school system themselves; it’s doable but takes a lot of time and effort. The teachers at Adams Elementary are against this as well, because if they embrace it, it means them losing their tenures (in some cases) and having to leave the teachers union, which protects their jobs – there’s no job security if the new school ends up failing. Fellow teacher Michael (Oscar Isaac, Drive) who strikes up a relationship with Malia’s mother is hesitant to fully “commit to the cause” because of this. Jamie and Nona must get their proposal accepted and change their school, otherwise there is no hope for their children’s education.
Maggie Gyllenhaal does a great job here but it’s Viola Davis who really shines, just when I thought she couldn’t do any better than she did in The Help. Nona is similar to The Help’s Aibileen in some ways, but unlike Aibileen, she speaks her mind to her boss when provoked, and I can’t imagine anyone other than Davis in this role. Oscar Isaac and Rosie Perez (Small Apartments) have nice supporting roles in the film as well.
Yes, see this film. I am actually hoping to see it again since I enjoyed it so much the first time, and I hope Viola Davis and/or Maggie Gyllenhaal get some award nominations or recognition for their work in it. The story might be a familiar one – indeed, during the Q&A, a lot of mom bloggers spoke up and told of similar situations in their own lives or at their kids’ schools – but the plot of a parent and a teacher working together not only to better their children’s school, but to create an entirely new curriculum and environment for it, is one that I don’t recall seeing in any recent movies; this qualifies Won’t Back Down as being different from others I’ve seen.
Won’t Back Down is currently in theaters, and is rated PG-13 with a runtime of approximately 120 minutes.
Rating: 4 stars out of 5.