A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Won't Back Down, which is based on actual events, follows a mother's journey to turn her daughter's failing elementary school around. There's some insulting language ("idiot," "retard," as well as "ass") and bullying -- a teacher does nothing as a student rips another student's backpack, and the same teacher purposely keeps a kid from leaving class to use the bathroom. Jamie, the protagonist mom, wears tight clothes and flirts with pretty much everyone -- culminating in a romantic relationship with a teacher at her child's school. Adults drink at a bar and restaurant, but there's no drunkenness. Parents and kids will be reminded of the difference that just one or two people can make in a community.
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What's the story?
Jamie (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a single mother raising a second-grader in Pittsburgh's down-and-out Hill District, can't afford private school tuition (even with a scholarship), so she must enroll her dyslexic daughter, Malia (Emily Alyn Lind), at her local public school. After Jamie quickly realizes that Malia's teacher is awful -- and the entire school has a failing grade from the county -- she convinces another second-grade-teacher, Nona (Viola Davis), to help her take back the school as a charter program. Unfortunately for Jamie and Nona, they end up having to fight not only the school system's bureaucracy, but also the teachers' union, which opposes the new school.
Is it any good?
If WON'T BACK DOWN were an inspiring made-for-TV movie, it would no doubt earn Gyllenhaal and Davis Emmy Award nominations. It's exactly the sort of "inspired by true events" drama that would be a great fit for basic cable. But on the big screen, the poignant premise (uneducated single mom will stop at nothing to secure her little girl a decent education) succumbs to a formula that feels a bit flat.
Of course it's a compelling story, because what parent doesn't want to think they have the courage of conviction to stand up to endless amounts of red tape? But this isn't really a tale about an amazing teacher like Stand and Deliver or Dead Poets Society; this is a David vs. Goliath story -- with a single mom and a teacher hurling their proverbial rocks at both a behemoth school board and a stuck-in-its-ways union. The performances get an "A" (Gyllenhaal and Davis are class acts), but the polemical story isn't novel enough to merit an extra star.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about whether movies based on true stories should follow them closely, or if it's OK for the films to change some facts in the interest of the storyline. Does this movie make you want to learn more about what really happened?
Some critics have said Won't Back Down is too one-sided when it comes to the teachers' union. Do you think the movie is meant as a political commentary or just a story about a parent and teacher's triumph?
Although this is a movie about education, the emphasis is less on teacher-student relationships and more on parent-teacher relationships. How is Jamie an unlikely crusader for education? Do you think the fact she's not so educated herself makes her mission even more sympathetic?
- In theaters: September 28, 2012
- On DVD or streaming: January 15, 2013
- Cast: Holly Hunter, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis
- Director: Daniel Barnz
- Studio: Walden Media
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: Great Girl Role Models, Misfits and Underdogs
- Run time: 121 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG
- MPAA explanation: thematic elements and language
- Last updated: February 10, 2020
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