Movie Review: ‘Won’t Back Down’ Celebrates Parent Activism

“Do you really think you could change things?”

That’s a big question being asked by Won’t Back Down, a movie set to release in theaters nationwide on September 28 with a rare Hollywood mix of blistering policy debate and big-screen drama.

The policy debate centers on Parent Trigger laws, which currently enable parents from California to Mississippi to require changes at low-performing schools such as restructuring or conversion to a charter school. Seven states currently have Parent Trigger laws, and 15 more are considering them, according to community organizer Parent Revolution.

Movie Star Power
Won’t Back Down seeks to cut through the political controversy surrounding Parent Trigger laws and display a very human story. And its big stars and big heart don’t hurt.

The Walden Media movie, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis, tells the inspiring story of two fed-up moms, one a teacher, banding together to transform their children’s failing urban school. Shot and set in Pittsburgh (though Pennsylvania doesn’t have a Parent Trigger law), the movie is fiction, but claims to be “inspired by true events,” a claim that has riled a few since no trigger-inspired takeover has yet been completed.

This isn’t the first time Walden Media, backed by conservative-leaning billionaire Philip Anschutz, has dipped its toe into education controversy — it advocated charter schools, objective teacher evaluations, and ending tenure in the 2010 documentary “Waiting for Superman,” but the film made less than expected and received no big awards after being savaged by union officials.

Won’t Back Down has already similarly faced the ire of angry union supporters and anti-Trigger advocates on social media outlets.

But this movie is different because it sets aside the controversy and focuses on what matters: parents and teachers improving life for their kids.

The movie opens, fittingly, in a noisy classroom at the fictional John Adams Elementary. Little Malia struggles through sounding out the word “order,” while an exasperated teacher rolls her eyes. Malia gives up, tears in her eyes, saying simply, “I can’t.”

Parent Power
Enter Malia’s mother, a gritty blue-collar mom Gyllenhaal plays with jarring tenacity. Desperate for options, unable to afford private school, and a loser at the charter school lottery, she turns to a tired, equally frustrated teacher (Davis) after hearing about “a law that lets parents turn schools around.” Together they rouse their community by knocking on doors, printing flyers, and even throwing a rally at a car lot, all to fix an elementary school that everyone else seems to think may not be worth fixing.

It’s a Hollywood movie, and a straight-up good-triumphs-over-evil tale, so there must be a bad guy, and it’s the bureaucracy. The viewers are told, via a frustrated teacher, “The only thing the district does right is cover up what it does wrong.” And, of course, the union functions as the bad guy for its exclusive focus on teacher comfort instead of kids. But teachers themselves are never vilified, only portrayed as frustrated victims like their students, thwarted by a rotten system. An increasingly disillusioned union worker, played smartly by Holly Hunter, tries to help one kid by sacrificing a school of them, and is just as frustrated as any mom or teacher in the film as a result.The duo must convince teachers, generate ideas to improve learning, and combat a system that embraces futility. In one memorable montage, the protagonists meet with school board officials, their mouths agape at the technicalities required just to schedule a hearing.

But one lucid theme keeps Won’t Back Down from being political messaging: hope. It’s like a soaring, joyful message from the other side of America’s education challenges, an admonition to never give up. Desperation turns to joyful aspiration as these parents and teachers realize change is possible. At one point, while Gyllenhaal and Davis are convincing Adams Elementary teachers to join their cause, one teacher asks honestly, “Do you really think you could change things?” Davis dithers, but Gyllenhaal’s hero-mom looks at the teacher and the viewer steely-eyed, with a clear, forceful conviction and says, “100 percent, yes.”

We have to hope she’s right, and that she’s not the only mom who won’t back down in tackling failing schools.

Originally published in School Reform News. Review by Joel Pavelski.