“Being poor sucks, and my kid can’t read.” Jamie Fitzpatrick (Maggie Gyllenhaal) sums up her character’s plight and the oh-so-nuanced tone of “Won’t Back Down” in one line. Much like this masterfully-crafted screenwriting gem, the film is about a woman who won’t back down.
The movie follows Jamie Fitzpatrick (Maggie Gyllenhaal), an optimistic, working-class, single mother on her quest to reform her daughter’s failing public school. After learning of the “Fail Safe Law” that allows parents to takeover failing school districts, Fitzpatrick rallies a team of angry parents and teachers to lead the charge. However, in-fighting, unions, and apathy all work to stymie her attempts. To add a stereotypical, arbitrary time limit, she only has two months to complete a task that usually takes three to five years. Nice white lady starts revolution to save troubled school. We’ve seen it before in “Freedom Writers” and “Dangerous Minds.” To add to the mediocrity, “Won’t Back Down” features forgettable soundtracks and cinematography to remind the audience that it is just more of the same. But unlike other “Save Our School” films, “Won’t Back Down” is a step-by-step manual to produce education reform, not so cleverly disguised behind an emotionally confused leading lady and an underdeveloped script.
While Maggie Gyllenhaal has been praised for her acting chops in films like “Crazy Hearts” and “Secretary,” her portrayal of Jamie Fitzpatrick has the emotional range and approximate depth of an inflatable children’s pool. Fitzpatrick’s upbeat, can-do attitude aids her throughout the film but also ceases to waver, creating a character that bounces between two emotional states: ecstatic happiness and mild disappointment. In multiple scenes, Fitzpatrick alternates crying and laughing such that she cries for five seconds, then laughs for five seconds, then wipes off her running eye make-up and carries on like nothing happened, leaving the audience completely bewildered.
However, while director and co-writer Daniel Barnz provides Gyllenhaal with no means to portray a complex character, Fitzpatrick’s counterpart, Nona Alberts (Viola Davis) compensates for the emotional depth that Fitzpatrick lacks. Davis’ character starts off as a sullen, apathetic, Ferris Bueller-style teacher and blooms into a charismatic and engaging leader, and she masterfully portrays this growth.
While Fitzpatrick and Alberts’ friendship is the main crux of the film, neither their relationship nor any of the other interpersonal connections are successfully developed. The women form a miraculous friendship after only two meetings: the first where Fitzpatrick pleads for Alberts’ help whilst on the brink of tears, and the second where Fitzpatrick pleads for Alberts’ help, whilst crying and laughing at the same time. Without much contest, Alberts joins Fitzpatrick on the dangerous journey that jeopardizes Alberts’ entire lifestyle, friendships, and career. The friendship does not progress far past that of fast-friends, which gives the audience very little substance to connect with.
Fitzpatrick and her sexy, rebellious teaching love interest, Michael Perry (Oscar Isaac) follow a similar pattern. Fitzpatrick meets Perry, invites him to a bar where she works, and ends the scene with a passionate make out session. Suddenly, they are living together. The two only encounter one major conflict during their time as instantaneous lovers, and make up silently in a single scene through Subtle Gazes. This leaves the audience to either discredit the film’s emotional content or believe that Fitzpatrick has an irresistible animal magnetism that has the power to win over and turn on any being within a five-foot radius.
Granted, “Won’t Back Down” is commendable for attempting to tackle the current issues in education reform. However, because the emotional content is lacking, the film falls back on its reform timeline to push the story forward. All that is left is an overly detailed how-to on overthrowing failing schools, overwatched by Maggie Gyllenhaal’s laughing/crying eyes.