Won't Back Down Directed by: Daniel Barnz Cast: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Holly Hunter, Oscar Isaac Running Time: 2 hrs 1 min Rating: PG Release Date: September 28, 2012
PLOT: A single mother (Gyllenhaal) teams up with a teacher (Davis) to take over their local elementary school and save it from its failing conditions.
WHO'S IT FOR? This is for parents who want sterilized entertainment about something they may or may not be experiencing in part themselves. Don't bring kids to this movie, unless you want to spend the entirety of Won't Back Down explaining to the young ones what "tenure" means, and why the "bad" people of this movie are "bad."
EXPECTATIONS: Any movie has the chance to be good, even if it is directed by the same guy who did Beastly ... or has a cheesy poster ...
Maggie Gyllenhaal as Jamie Fitzpatrick: When we first meet her character, we are meant to automatically like her because she's a mom with two jobs and a kid who can't read. Considering the idea that we are simply meant to like a person based on their background and not so much from their actual character, that is mighty presumptuous. Thankfully, Gyllenhaal does make this character a tad likable, or at least sufferable. While her general attendance to this movie is the most unfortunate component of this performance, Gyllenhaal's face becomes her most successful part of her acting, using her big eyes to gather a sort of playful innocence, while her bony cheeks progressively indicate a type of wear to her character as the story goes on. Score: 5
Viola Davis as Nona Alberts: Seeing eye-to-eye with Gyllenhaal, Davis has the same type of resilience to letting this script bully her performance into sucktitude (one can imagine her feeling such emotions in a Hollywood office, crying like she did in Doubt). Like Gyllenhaal, she reins in the script with a fair grasp of the right emotion. Though she's been used for her fully operating sprinkler system tear ducts in the past, she never feels here like she is over-acting. There are dumb moments (such as a third act revelation that just seems like double-bad parenting), but she doesn't lose them. Because of this performance, and not the script, her character almost feels real. Score: 5
Rest of Cast: Others in the movie are not so strong against the forces of evil that are this script. Holly Hunter becomes a tool to the story, who shifts between "good" and "evil" whenever the script finds it to be most beneficial to whatever emotion it wants to convey. Oscar Isaac slumps to the dramatic silliness as well, this role turning into the type of Tinseltown tooth-cutter that at least provides notoriety to be used for good in the future. Score: 4
TALKING: When it comes to debating the issues, other people aside from David and Gyllenhaal have their own different opinions, but such dissents are never supported by the script like those ideas of the main characters. People will express the opposite side of the subject, but this movie is too simple in its understanding of only one cause that it doesn't let the other side even have its say. It's an unfair way for this movie to say that the other side of the argument isn't right. Score: 4
SIGHTS: After getting their bridges blown and their football stadiums trashed in The Dark Knight Rises, the location of Pittsburgh suffers another grim tragedy with Won't Back Down, a movie that milks the location for its working class spirit, and corroding exteriors. With the movie's drab colors and its story's overall crappiness, Won't Back Down does a disservice more than anything to its locations. Score: 3
SOUNDS: As if to fulfill a weird obligation that it almost forgot to do, "I Won't Back Down" by Tom Petty plays only during the end credits, and barely for a minute. The rest of the music in the film has the same indifference, with the score following elementary emotional cues with its drowsy harp and piano instrumentation. Oscar Isaac, proving again after last week's 10 Years that he will sing well in the Coen Brothers' new film Inside Llelwyn Davis, sings a couple of ditties with kids on a ukulele. Score: 4
BEST SCENE: Davis' first speech during the "Parentrooper" rally has a rare moment of naturalness to it, as her character is shown to not be an immediately good public speaker.
ENDING: As the film was wrapping itself up, and that little girl misread the word "hope," I stared at the screen. My jaw dropped. I stared back at this girl, and at this movie, hoping it wouldn't do what I feared it was going to do. But then, it happened. She said the word "hope" correctly, and suddenly my middle finger came flying at the screen.
QUESTIONS: Who bribed Gyllenhaal and Davis to be in this movie? After making a movie like Beastly, as Daniel Barnz certainly did, don't you usually get banned from being around Oscar-nominated actresses for at least a decade?
REWATCHABILITY: No, no, no way. There are a lot of bad movies that have more replay value for at least the glints of visual spectacle they might offer. This movie has nothing that I'd like to see again.
Before we get caught up on the sub-tagline on the poster that says "Inspired by Actual Events," let's cut this movie off from its sneaky cheating. This movie is as inspired by true events as in yes, it is true that kids go to school on weekdays, and that parents get upset if their children do not get the education all of them well deserve. It is also true that Penguins are the hockey team of Pittsburgh (something I did not learn in school, but from the Jean-Claude Van Damme movie Sudden Death). The end of this movie lays it out clear that "The events presented in this photoplay are fictitious," etc.
Such an unnecessary lie further shows the manipulation behind such a film, which takes a cause (parents taking back the schools!) that could be real and inspiring, and exploits such a course of events for all of the PG-rated dramatics that can be crammed into one story. Eventually, everyone gets mad and sad in some capacity. There's plenty of tears, and there are plenty of scenes of kids who need the Derek Zoolander Center for Kids Who Can't Read Good And Wanna Learn To Do Other Stuff Good Too. And for all of you ruler enthusiasts, there's even a scene in which a large crowd displays their defiance to failing schools by waving rulers in the air. However, there is not a scene in which a group of kids break out into Whitney Houston's "The Greatest Love of All," a scene that I'm sure will be in the DVD's deleted scenes.
Won't Back Down takes the real heartbreak of something captured in the 2010 documentary Waiting for Superman (which I recommend even more now), and greedily stuffs these truly difficult moments (charter school lotteries seem like the worst thing ever) into cliche lockers. This movie, questionable if it ever had a glimmer of genuine intention when it was first being scripted, unproductively answers to real pain with sparkly wand waves and abuse of such a story's underdog quality. Yes, there's a scene in which the movie's Important Decision comes down to a vote as decided by seven people. Guess how many of them vote "No"?
With much of the drama involving questionably exciting world of school unions (bound to lose a child's attention faster than assigned reading), this movie is essentially competing with the entertainment value of physically going to a town hall meeting. In many ways, Won't Back Down loses this battle, and not just because town hall meetings sometimes have donuts.
FINAL SCORE: 4/10