A Mother's Relentless Quest
Many viewers will probably identify with Jamie Fitzpatrick’s plight in director Daniel Barnz’s Won’t Back Down. Played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jamie is a single mom living in an inner-city community with her 8-year-old daughter Malia, portayed by Emily Lind. Malia, a second-grader, struggles with relentless bullying from her peers and an inability to read due to dyslexia.
Jamie is astonished when Malia’s teacher refuses to offer any additional help for her daughter. As far as this teacher is concerned, her duties start and end with the morning bell and class dismissal. Later, Malia feels humiliated when her teacher refuses her access to the restroom during class because her mother went to Principal Thompson (Ving Rhames) after she made those comments to the child.
Soaked in her own urine -- which she bravely fought to hold in for over an hour -- Malia cowers inside the school’s boiler room as punishment for soiling herself until her mother arrives at her school.
Nona Alberts’ (Viola Davis) son Cody (Dante Brown) is considered slow by his teachers but can excel if taught one on one and allowed to complete work at his own pace. Ironically, Nona teaches at Malia’s school yet can’t seem to get her colleagues to listen to her. Recently divorced, she lacks the funds for a private school she desperately wants Cody to attend because it will meet all his needs. She enters Cody in a lottery set up by this institution for low income families to receive full-scholarships for their kids. Jamie also enters Malia in the drawing but neither child gets selected.
Jamie inadvertently learns of a law enabling parents to overthrow the administration at Malia's school and start a new one if she can prove the current school fails its students. However, she must draft her own new curriculum, hire new teachers, and obtain enough parental signatures on a petition. The process of getting a hearing to have the proposal heard is designed by the school board to bankrupt parents and drag on for years until they give up. Undaunted, Jamie aims to get a new school created by the start of the next school year.
After overhearing Nona confront the principal of the private school she wants Cody to attend, Jamie tries to enlist her help. But Nona fears for her livelihood for various reasons, including the teacher’s union ceasing support of anyone involved with Jamie and her cause. Jamie’s dogged persistence eventually persuades Nona to join her crusade.
Meanwhile, Jamie develops a relationship with Michael (Oscar Issac) a teacher at Malia’s school who uses music to reach his students. Their relationship is tested when he refuses to get involved with her cause despite a strong bond with Malia. He also fears the union.
Davis made a smart decision to portray Nona as a woman harboring a dark secret and as broken as the school system she works for but now must rally against. I couldn’t help empathizing with Nona’s struggle as well as her discovery of an unexpected calling through her association with Jamie.
Gyllenhaal’s powerful performance reminds me of my mother and her tireless battle alongside my father against educators who refused to do anything about the relentless bullying I suffered as the result of my own learning disability. I was home-schooled until she found an alternative high school program for me.
Holly Hunter stands out as Evelyn Risk, chairperson of the teacher’s union. I sympathized with her constant inner war over her union’s views clashing with her own desire to bring forth the type of changes outlined in Jamie and Nona’s proposal.
I rooted for the film’s characters from start to finish while watching this riveting and well-crafted drama from writer/director Barnz and co-writer Brin Hill. Hopefully, Won’t Back Down will empower others in circumstances where they need to take a stand to make certain their voices are heard.
(Released by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation and rated “PG” for thematic elements and language)