October 3, 2012

Jaded Teacher and Single Mother Join Forces in Uplifting Film

WE DID IT, WE DID IT: Nona Alberts (Viola Davis, left), Jamie Fitzpatrick (Maggie Gyllenhaal, center) and Jamie’s daughter Malia (Emily Alyn Lynd) are overwhelmed with joy when they learn that their attempt to change Malia’s school from a public to a charter school has succeeded under the new, so-called Parent Trigger Law.

In 2010 California passed the nation’s first “Parent Trigger Law,” a bill which enables a district with an under-performing public school to fire the principal, replace the staff, and convert it to a charter school, if a majority of the parents with students attending it sign a petition. The legislation has proved very controversial thus far, with opponents alleging that the measure is merely anti-union, whereas the sponsors call it an overdue reform intended to give children who are stuck in so-called “dropout factories” a fair chance.

Consequently, Won’t Back Down is opening under a cloud of controversy, which is unfortunate since the film is otherwise a quite engaging and entertaining tale of female empowerment. The reason why the picture has generated so much interest is because it was produced by Walden Media, the same studio that just a couple of years ago released Waiting for Superman, a documentary that came under attack for blaming teachers’ unions for the dysfunctional education system.

Although based on actual events that transpired in Los Angeles, Won’t Back Down is set in Pittsburgh, where we find Jamie Fitzpatrick (Maggie Gyllenhaal) struggling to make ends meet. Between selling used cars by day and bartending at night, the single mother barely has any energy left to attend to the academic needs of her dyslexic daughter, Malia (Emily Alyn Lind).

Convinced that the lagging 8-year-old hasn’t learned to read out of neglect by her teachers at school, she enters the little girl in a lottery for one of the few spots opening up at Rosa Parks, a nearby, highly-regarded, charter school. But when Malia’s name isn’t chosen, the frustrated mother decides to do something about the school the child’s in.

Inspired by the state’s new “Fail Safe Law,” Jamie becomes a tireless child advocate hell-bent on wresting the reins of control from an administration and staff that have low expectations for their students. Along the way, she enlists the assistance of Nona Alberts (Viola Davis), a jaded teacher who had almost given up trying to fight the system.

Initially, Nona is reluctant to get involved, because she could very easily get blacklisted for trying to bust the union. Furthermore, she’s an emotional wreck because she is overwhelmed at the prospect of having to raise her son (Dante Brown) on her own after her husband (Lance Reddick) recently left them.

However, Jamie and Nona bond and, over the objections of bureaucrats, not only garner the requisite number of parental votes but even talk the teachers into surrendering job security in favor of performance-based salaries. The movie is an uplifting Hollywood story that suggests that the solution to public education’s woes might be as simple as a couple of women picking up picket signs.

Very Good (***). Rated PG for mature themes and mild epithets. Running time: 121 minutes. Distributor: 20th Century Fox/Walden Media.