Two women—a parent and a teacher—fight to turn their kids' failing school around. Not everyone will like how they do it. But we can all get behind their perseverance and dedication to education.
Education is a complicated issue. There are a thousand different thoughts on to how to rightly teach our children, and just as many pointed fingers when things go wrong. It is indeed a work in progress.
And perhaps that's fine, if you take the long view of things. We learn from our mistakes. We tinker as we go. If we're smart or lucky or both, we slowly craft a system that's better than what it was.
But for kids falling through the cracks now, that long view is no help at all. They can't wait 40 years for things to improve. They need help today.
Malia Fitzpatrick is a bright, inquisitive grade schooler who battles dyslexia. For a while Malia was getting a good, private-school education in the heart of Pittsburgh, but her mother, Jamie, couldn't afford the tuition anymore. So Malia enrolls in Adams Elementary, a place where even one of the teachers says "education goes to die."
Malia begins to fall behind. She gets discouraged and turns grouchy, retreating into a self-made shell. Seven out of 10 students leave Adams barely able to read; Malia, with her special challenges, seems primed to join the crowd.
Jamie begs Malia's old private-school principal to give her a break on tuition to no avail. She tries to enroll Malia in an innovative new school, but they lose out in the lottery system it uses to determine pupil selection. At Adams, she asks for Malia to move to another class—one taught by a discouraged-but-decent teacher named Nona—but that's a no-go, too.
Jamie's not done, though. Not by a long shot. "Have you heard about those mothers who lift one-ton trucks off their babies?" she says. "They're nothing compared to me."
Jamie decides that if Malia can't change schools, she'll change Malia's school—Adams, the institution that's received a failing grade from the state for the last 19 years. She'll take the thing over if she has to. But she can't do it alone. She needs someone who actually knows something about education—someone who sees the need as sharply as Jamie does.
"You wanna start a school with me?" she asks Nona.
Such a simple beginning to tackling such a complicated issue.
Whatever you think about the hot-button issues at play in Don't Back Down, you've gotta respect Jamie's perseverance and desire to do what's best for her daughter. She could give a pit bull lessons in tenacity.
When she and Nona begin to explore the options involved in giving Adams a fresh start, they're overwhelmed by the amount of work it'll take. The experts say it's a 3- to 5-year process, minimum. But that's way too late for Malia. "I can feel the change in her," Jamie laments. "It's making her hard." So she just keeps plowing ahead, determined to silence the skeptics.
Nona signs on to the initiative reluctantly, but she proves to be just as idealistic and tenacious as Jamie. Raised by a mother who was also a beloved schoolteacher, Nona got into education with the highest of aspirations: She even purposefully went to Adams because she felt she could make a difference there. Now, after being beaten down by the system for years, her passion is reignited by Jamie's fresh vision. "This could be our chance to be the teachers we always wanted to be," she tells her fellow educators.
Those teachers (whose union would be shunted aside in the new school) are initially skeptical. The whole community is. Nona and Jamie pound on a lot of doors and talk with a bevy of unsympathetic people. But they refuse to abandon their almost quixotic quest—Jamie, in part, sticking with the cause because she hopes it'll teach her daughter to never, ever give up.
It's important to note that most of the teachers we see here really want to teach and care about the kids in their classes. Michael—who plays the ukulele and leads his kids in civics-oriented songs—seems particularly motivated. And even the head of the union seems deeply committed to kids and their education. That was why she took her union job in the first place.
Elsewhere, Malia has an accident in class when her teacher refuses to give her a bathroom pass. Jamie finds her hiding in a closet, but when she tries to help her, Malia pushes her away and yells at her for being poor and dumb. "You hear me?" Malia hollers. "You're stupid." Malia is, of course, clearly displacing her own fears and frustrations on her mom, and her words are obviously hurtful. But Jamie refuses to take the bait. She puts on her momma cape and while secretly nursing her wounds, says nothing in retort. Instead, she quietly gives her daughter instructions on cleaning herself up.
We're shown the pain that separation and looming divorce causes, primarily through Nona and her husband, Albert, who leaves her near the beginning of the movie. But the two may not be past reconciliation, the film suggests.
Jamie sometimes wears mildly revealing clothes. She gets chummy with Michael (the first time she talks with him, she compliments his backside), and the two sometimes kiss. Other teachers have been known to call Michael "Sexy Texy." Luck is called a "foxy lady."
Malia and a schoolmate get into a fight over Malia's backpack, eventually ripping the thing. Nona's son, Cody (who also appears to have some sort of learning disability), comes home with blood on his shirt, which he says came from a bloody nose. (There's a hint that it came from getting picked on.)
Crude or Profane Language
We hear "a‑‑" twice and "b‑‑tard," "d‑‑n," "h‑‑‑," "p‑‑‑ed" and "scumbag" once each. God's name is misused two or three times, and there are a couple of uses of "jeez." Someone exclaims "lord." Cody calls himself a "retard." Nona tells her principal to "go screw himself."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Jamie jokes that she "marries losers" when she's drunk—a reference, apparently, to Malia's long-gone father. Still, she works as a bartender in the evenings. She holds a meeting of sorts at the bar and serves Michael whiskey. When Michael walks her home that night, he admits he's drunk. And he also drinks a beer while babysitting Malia. Jamie and some of the teachers go to the bar to celebrate a milestone. Someone references her need for a blue mojito. Nona, slurping down a drink, says, "Are you sure these are virgins? 'Cause I'm feeling something."
[Spoiler Warning] Nona doesn't touch alcohol, and that last line is played for laughs. But later a sad undercurrent mars the humor: Nona used to drink, we learn. She stopped after she had an accident while driving drunk. Cody was in the car at the time and, because an inebriated Nona didn't buckle him in properly, he was thrown forward and hit his head. Nona's worried ever since that she caused his learning difficulties. (Her confession to her son is heartbreaking, but beautiful.)
Other Negative Elements
As Jamie and Nona's campaign grows, the teachers union sometimes uses rough-and-tumble tactics to stop them. Evelyn, the head of the union, offers Malia a scholarship to one of the city's most prestigious schools—a bribe of sorts, though in Evelyn's view, a well-meaning one that'll actually help Malia more than Adams ever could. She offers no such scholarship to Nona's boy, though. Indeed, the union sends out press releases defaming Nona's character, and Nona's principal eventually suspends her for "fixing" attendance records—even though it was the principal who demanded that she do it.
When Malia backpack is torn she start to cry, knowing how much money it cost her mom. How does her teacher respond? By telling her not to be such a drama queen.
Critics are already calling Won't Back Down—screened at both the Democrat and Republican conventions—an anti-union film. In a statement, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, says the flick blames teachers unions for a faltering educational system and uses "the most blatant stereotypes and caricatures [of union teachers] I have ever seen."
Maybe. But Won't Back Down also takes pains to give unions props for the good they've done. And it presents us with some strong pro-education, pro-union teachers. Is the film critical of unions? Absolutely. Does it show an educational system that's a little cracked? Does it deride the bureaucracy that can bog down progress? Indeed it does.
And that's pretty much all we need to say about it in this review. Because there's another, underlying question that (for our purposes at least) is more important.
What are you going to do with your one and only life?
Nona remembers her mother asking her this years earlier—a question, perhaps, that pushed her into one of the world's most admirable professions: teacher.
This movie isn't just about unions or the plight of public schools. It's about time. Time treasured, time wasted, time brief and fleeting. When we see Malia and Cody struggle with their education, we feel their mothers' sense of urgency. Their kids just don't have much time to get on the right track. No child does. The stakes here aren't life and death, but they are about life. They're about potential, and about how every child deserves a chance to reach it.
As these parents and teachers strive to give kids the best possible conditions to reach that potential, they reclaim some of their own. Perhaps they've squandered months or years. But it's not too late. It's never too late. They have the opportunity to impact kids' lives. They have a chance to make a difference. Quibble all you want over whether this, that or the other educational model provides our children with their best shot—but don't turn your back on the underlying goals while you do it.
Won't Back Down stays true to its PG rating. The content concerns we have with it are minor. And once we deal with those and set aside the film's activism, we're left with a pretty cool story with a pretty cool point.