“Won’t Back Down,” the new film starring Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal, is an engaging film that goes well beyond the expectations of a “feel good” movie about education. The highs and lows depicted in the film–some of them very unexpected–punctuate a story that speaks to the current realities of the education system in the U.S. and also the complicated bonds between people. In addition to great work by Davis, Gyllenhaal, Holly Hunter and Rosie Perez, child actors Emily Alyn Lind and Dante Brown turn in vulnerable, nuanced performances.
Davis plays a Pittsburgh public school teacher who is disillusioned by her oversized classroom and plagued with emotional issues at home with her husband (played by Lance Reddick from “The Wire”) and her son. As always, Davis gives power and grace to her role. Her scenes with the extremely talented Marianne Jean-Baptiste are treats in particular; their fast-paced exchanges are witty and dynamic. Meanwhile, Gyllenhaal plays a poor single mom to a little girl who is dyslexic and failing miserably in a classroom headed by a subpar teacher. Gyllenhaal’s best moments are opposite her romantic interest in the film, played by Guatemalan-born actor Oscar Isaac.
Once Davis and Gyllenhaal’s characters team up on a quest to turn their failing school into a high-quality institution with eager children and just as eager faculty, the movie really picks up the pace. People with strong opinions on teachers unions will have plenty to take in after viewing this film. There are characters on both sides of the issue and some are swayed to the other side. Broken public school systems, especially in poor neighborhoods of color, are a timely issue, and “Won’t Back Down” offers interesting means to address that.
Beyond the cast and dialogue, director Daniel Barnz takes some chances with interesting time-lapse shots during a door-knocking campaign, and the blocking, throughout the movie is a bit more thoughtful than in the typical film.
“Won’t Back Down” is an inspirational, thought-provoking film with an excellent cast and could quite possibly earn a few Oscar nods. It hits theaters Sept. 28.