In 2010, California passed the nation's first "Parent Trigger Law," a bill which enables a neighborhood with an underperforming public school to fire the principal, replace the staff and convert it to a charter, provided a majority of the parents with students attending it sign a petition. The legislation has proved very controversial thus far, with opponents alleging that the measure is merely anti-union, whereas the sponsors call it an overdue reform intended to give kids stuck in so-called "dropout factories" a fair chance.
Consequently, "Won't Back Down" is opening under a cloud of controversy, which is unfortunate since the film is otherwise a quite engaging and entertaining tale of female empowerment. The reason why the picture has generated so much suspicion is that it was produced by Walden Media, the same studio that just a couple of years ago released "Waiting for Superman," an incendiary documentary that came under attack for blaming teachers' unions for the broken educational system.
Although based on actual events that transpired in Los Angeles, "Won't Back Down" is set in the City of Pittsburgh, where we find an exasperated Jamie Fitzpatrick (Maggie Gyllenhaal) struggling to just to survive. Between selling used cars by day and bartending at night, the single-mom barely has any energy left to attend to the academic needs of her dyslexic daughter, Malia (Emily Alyn Lind).
Convinced that the lagging 8 year-old hasn't learned to read out of neglect, she enters the little girl in a lottery for one of the few coveted spots opening up at Rosa Parks, a highly-regarded, nearby charter school. But when Malia's name isn't called, the frustrated mother decides to do something about the school they're still stuck with.
Inspired by the state's new "Fail Safe Law," Jamie morphs into a tireless child advocate hell-bent on wresting the reins of control from an administration and staff with low expectations. Along the way, she enlists the assistance of Nona Alberts (Viola Davis), a jaded teacher who had all but gone to acceptance.
Initially, Nona is reluctant to get involved, because she could very easily get blacklisted for trying to bust the union. Furthermore, she's an emotional wreck, being overwhelmed by the prospect of having to raise her son (Dante Brown) on her own in the wake of her estranged husband's (Lance Reddick) recent departure.
Nevertheless, Jamie and Nona bond and, over the objections of bureaucrats, not only garner the requisite number of parental votes but even talk the teachers into surrendering job security for performance-based salaries. An uplifting, overcoming the odds Hollywood saga suggesting that the solution to public education's host of woes might be as simple as a couple of women on the verge of a nervous breakdown picking up picket signs.
In the tradition of Norma Rae and Erin Brockovich, say hello to Jamie Fitzpatrick and Nona Alberts!
Very Good (3 stars)
Rated PG for mature themes and mild epithets.
Running time: 121 minutes
Distributor: 20th Century Fox/Walden Media