Yesterday I regretted that a dour horror film didn't realize it could be a splatterfest classic. Today I watched Won't Back Down and am incredibly angry that a film that pretends to be a rallying cry for teachers is actually a deconstruction of everything influential teaching should stand for.
I hate this movie more than almost any other since this site was started.
Won't Back Down is a film about a disillusioned teacher and fed up mother starting a school from scratch which promotes the following attributes as virtues:
- The complete abolishment of teacher's unions as a way of somehow giving them more power. At no point is it established exactly how unions have made it so that teachers are unable to do their jobs. Instead it randomly demonizes those teachers who support the union and instead hold faith that a paper from the government will protect their salaries. There is significant cognitive dissonance involved in explaining how how one ideal clashes with the other that the film can't recuperate from - especially when Rosie Perez starts yelling.
- That all it takes to establish a good school is failure and poverty blown up to an embarrassing scale of minstrel-esque degradation. Rare is the film that parades around just how much strength you have if you're poor and surviving (not, in and of itself, a bad thing) only to turn it into a series of comic asides with animal-print clad characters (which makes the idea of the poor suffering a joke).
- That magical men who make everything better with ukelele's and slant rhyme schemes are the driving force behind successful students. This is in the broad tradition of excellent teachers needing a simple wacy gimmick in order to reach their students. Say what you will about the hallow notions of fictional teachers like Robin Williams' English teacher from Dead Poet's Society, but at least his students got more exercise and learning in than two simple chords from the hot teacher.
- While we're on the subject of men driving the world of education - that the incalculably insulting idea that the only way to attract quality teachers to a noble cause is through sex. The aforementioned magical hot ukele-toting man hunk teacher is only willing to abandon his life of systemic slavery to a bad system through the promise of some sweet Maggie Gyllenhaal love. Coincidentally, the character played by Gyllenhaal finds the knowledge to convince her reluctant friend once she's been satisfied. This is a terrifyingly degrading notion to any woman who ever could work in education.
- That the best way for Gyllenhaal to convey excitement and optimism is by keeping her eyelids opened as wide as possible the entire film. At times it seemed that a portion of the budget must have gone to keeping her eyes moist.
Won't Back Down is the single most debasing film to an honorable institution that I have ever seen with no indication that anyone involved in the film understands how good teaching works and the union powers that try and maintain dignity. It builds up a lottery of education, itself a degrading spectacle that turns children's futures into game show prizes, into a scene of empowerment. The target is the fact that lotteries like this need to exist so children stand the chance of getting into good schools instead of why these lotteries exist to begin with.
Viola Davis is a strong contender for the greatest living actress right now (second only to Liv Ullman). Why is she wasting her time with this? Davis has worked with complicated material before and played mothers who really understand the difficulties facing her children and is willing to accept horrible consequences to make sure they succeed. She is still excellent, but not well paired with Gyllenhaal as she sexes her way into success.
There’s nothing good to be said about the visual style of this film either. Every shot is played for maximum cheesy effect, close-ups right on cue to sad eyes, medium-wide shots for all those defiant speeches, and one very odd costuming decision where a key vote is cast by a man deliberately made up to look like a black Abraham Lincoln. The musical cues are the same throughout, even during the sad moments, as chipper tones belie the characters tendency to want to tear this whole school system down.
Don't lose anymore of your time. Won't Back Down is degrading to women, men, education, unions, and so much more. Kids and audiences both need much better.