This movie opens with a little girl who's upset because she can't read words on a blackboard. No surprise there: the child is dyslexic, we later learn. Her teacher is an unsympathetic, texting troll who's a union member, secure in her job.
The little girl's feisty, gritting, beautiful mom (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a single mother working two dead-end jobs who's also dyslexic, decides her daughter needs a better education and a better school. She convinces a disheartned teacher in that school (the wonderful Viola Davis) to work with her to take over the school, invoking the parent trigger rule, and to transform it into a wonderful institution.
The story is inspiration. We learn, from the movie, that "it's based on true events," but that's a bit of a stretch. Critics are having a hard time separating the movie, as art, from the heavy-handed political message that teachers' unions are bad and are killing education. Here's what some are saying:
The real question is, ultimately, are the movies art -- in which there's room for conflicting ideas and three-dimensional characters? Or are they propaganda, in which thoughts are reduced to slogans, and people to a simple image that can be printed on a poster? And that's where "Won't Back Down" falls short. Every school board member here is a fat cat; every union official a self-interested sneak; every parent a responsible, salt-of-the-earth, blue-collar worker; every child willing to learn. Real-life factors in education -- such as drugs or crime or abusive homes -- don't count at all.
So teachers’ unions don’t care about kids. Oh, and luck is a foxy lady. This is what I took away from the inept and bizarre “Won’t Back Down,” a set of right-wing anti-union talking points disguised (with very limited success) as a mainstream motion-picture-type product. Someone needs to launch an investigation into what combination of crimes, dares, alcoholic binges and lapses in judgment got Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal into this movie…. the big picture is that the movie is unbelievable crap and the whole project was financed by conservative Christian billionaire Phil Anschutz, also the moneybags behind the documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman,’” which handled a similar agenda in subtler fashion. Andrew O’Hehir, Salon
Though the film's pernicious propagandistic bias is irritating and misleading, it can't be overemphasized that what is really wrong with this film is how feeble it is dramatically. When Nora (Viola Davis) is trying to decide if she should work with Jamie (Maggie Gyllenhaal), she remembers her mother's question: "What are you going to do with your one and only life?" Anyone who values their one and only life would be well-advised not to spend two hours of it here. Kenneth Turan, LA Times
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