You can always tell if you’re in the midst of the fall “prestige” season when the cavalcade of bizarrely misconceived heart-tuggers start to stink up the multiplex with the stench of self-importance. This year, the party has already been kicked off with The Words and now we have the Erin Brockovich/Dangerous Minds mash up project Won’t Back Down to spice up the inspirational drama genre with an unexpected conservative agenda. I hope you folks like union bashing because you’re about to find out why those evil teachers unions out there want to rob children of an education for the sake of a status quo. Ok, so maybe the movie isn’t quite as rank as it sounds (compared to The Words, this thing’s a masterpiece), but there’s so much odd idealism in play on screen while the filmmaker’s swing for the Oscar fences that you can’t help but watch at least some of the movie with your mouth agape unsure of what you actually saw.
Maggie Gyllenhaal stars in a series of tight pants and midriff flaunting T-shirts as Jamie Fitzpatrick, a mom juggling a series of jobs with dreams of giving her a daughter a future with the hope she never had. She’s a feisty lady in the Erin Brockovich mold who might serve the public in menial jobs, but she won’t put up with no BS either, girlfriend! Unfortunately, her daughter has been dumped into a failing school and is stuck with teacher so disinterested that she spends most of her classroom time texting, online shopping, and humiliating students. She can’t be fired because of that blasted union that protects teacher’s jobs, though. She’s as mad as hell and she ain’t going to take it anymore. Fortunately, good ol’ Jamie finds out about a secret fail safe law that allows for spurned parents and teachers to combine forces to bring down troubled schools and build idyllic meccas of education in their place. She just needs a partner in crime to make the dream a reality.
Enter Viola Davis as a teacher in Gyllenhaal’s school who used to have ideals, but now offers her students just slightly above the bare minimum. She also has a troubled child and meets Gyllenhaal at a lottery for students to enter the only good public school in the area (the principal is Ving Rhames in full smarmy villain mode). Davis and Gyllenhaal lose the education draft, but decide to take down their evil school instead. They soon find a compatriot in the ukulele-teaching specialist Oscar Isaac who’s the dead end school’s most beloved teacher. Parent petitions follow and soon a plan is in action to take over the building for the next term. Unfortunately the teacher’s union finds out and starts launching an aggressive smear campaign because apparently unions are super corrupt and evil entities who want to destroy the minds of children (the movie was funded by a conservative billionaire). That’s not enough to stop Davis and Gyllenhaal. They launch a battle against good and evil with only one possible outcome to send audiences cheering out of theaters with dreams of starting their own revolution.
Now, as silly as that all sounds, the movie isn’t quite as bad as it could have been. As far as “mommies do right” inspirational dramas go, things could be worse. Gyllenhaal and Davis (in what’s surprisingly her first lead role) are actors with talent way above the material. They commit fully to the roles with an awards nomination glint in their eyes and almost make the movie work as they cry, strut, joke, and empower their way through the fairly pedestrian script. Co-writer/director Daniel Barnz clearly has his heart in the right place as well. It’s no secret that the American education system has problems and the filmmaker clearly hopes to draw attention to an important issue via schmaltz. He’s also the man responsible for the dreadful fantasy Beastly, though, and his love of irrational visual overkill often sneaks into the movie even when it shouldn’t be possible. Much of the first half of the film is filled with inappropriate trick photography and MTV montages that draw attention to themselves in a very unappealing way. At times you’ll wish you could grab him by the throat and demand he stick the camera on a tripod and let the actors work. Fortunately, by the second half that happens (maybe a producer was kind enough to do that service for us).
Unfortunately any good will that comes from the central performances and well-meaning intentions constantly does battle with some ridiculous filmmaking decisions. The politics are distracting rather than enlightening, while the drama too often goes off the rails and into the absurd. This is the kind of movie where a group of rebellious teachers bond over line dancing without a shred of irony and the symbol of pure teaching is embodied by a man who makes his class sing along to ukuele improvs that would have most actual grade school kids groaning in frustration. Yep, the movie takes place in that magical Oscar-bait land. A world where all complicated issues can be boiled down to a battle of good and evil and everyone on the right side of the issue has a heart of gold. Most audiences won’t buy it and yet it wouldn’t be surprised if the movie eats up some nominations when awards season comes calling. This is the type of pat message movie that Hollywood loves to pat itself on the back for and it hits all of those expected beats with only a few moments of surprise prompted by batshit crazy filmmaking decisions. At least that warms up the cheese slightly. Too bad it does nothing about the stink.