A frequent claim is that the most difficult project a filmmaker can take on is a comedy. Making a decently funny movie entails getting the script to work, getting the actors to have chemistry, getting the plot to flow at a near-perfect pace and, most importantly, making sure absolutely nothing feels forced down the audience’s throat. What people don’t realize is that a drama, with its distinct reliance on getting the audience to genuinely care about what’s being discussed, works in much the same way.
Won’t Back Down
At Quality 16 and Rave
Twentieth Century Fox
That being said, the recent public-school drama “Won’t Back Down” by Daniel Barnz (“Beastly”) is a picture-perfect representation of how not to make a movie you want people to care about. It’s obvious that the people who made the film cared about needed reform in America’s public education system, but by making this film, it seems they’re doing everything in their power to marginalize the complexity of the problem.
The film tries desperately to be a crowd pleaser by invoking well-known themes such as “little guy” (in this case two women with special-needs children) vs. the evil system and honesty vs. corruption. But it does nothing to make those tried-and-true motifs resonate with any sense of reality. Because it’s not believable, no one makes any meaningful connections with the real problems at hand.
The movie picks up with a look into the life of single mother Jamie Fitzpatrick (Maggie Gyllenhaal, “The Dark Knight”) as she struggles to support her severely dyslexic daughter. It’s an unfortunately realistic situation for many Americans today, but as the movie progresses, it’s painfully clear the filmmakers aren’t willing to explore it. Fitzpatrick, like any other parent, wants her daughter to be happy in life and have a fair chance at a good education. In her noble quest for the perfect schooling system, Fitzpatrick is joined by Nona Alberts (Viola Davis, “The Help”), a teacher who seems to have lost all faith in her craft and who also struggles to raise a special-needs child.
But as it so happens, the evil teachers’ union and its league of hopelessly incompetent, yet somehow tenured teachers plague every classroom and are willing to do anything within their power to make sure there’s absolutely no progress. On paper, this looks a tad extreme but when you look past all the formulaic laughs and mechanically constructed tear-jerk moments, this really is the idiotic point the movie is trying to make.
The worst part is watching proven actors like Gyllenhaal and Davis waste their time. But come on, girls, a script so totally defined by its own cut-and-dried nature should have been a red flag. In the same vein, the random and sloppily executed climax should have been a heads up that the people involved with this project have no idea how to create and follow through with the conflicts they set up.
The end result is a bunch of performances that reek of forced sincerity and never really try to address the unendingly complex topics they’re supposed to be tackling. Instead of being an insightful story, the film ends up looking like a bunch of uninformed people trying to pick a fight.