For all its faults, Won't Back Down offers a welcome alternative to the standard broken-school film plot.
At least once a decade, Hollywood produces a film like Stand and Deliver (1988), Dangerous Minds (1995), or Freedom Writers (2007), spotlighting a teacher whose grit helps students unlock their potential and transcend poverty. The only problem with those kinds of films is that they can reinforce the dangerous myth that poverty is an insurmountable obstacle to learning that can only be overcome by rare hero-teachers. Won't Back Down, Hollywood's latest broken-school flick, subverts that comfortable narrative, which is why it's such an important movie, and why it's drawing so much heat from teachers' unions. (Disclosure: I work for TNTP, a non-profit organization that promotes equal access to effective teachers among poor and minority students. All opinions expressed in this article are my own.*)
Set in working-class Pittsburgh, Won't Back Down stars Maggie Gyllenhaall as Jamie Fitzpatrick, an overworked and undereducated single mom whose daughter is "getting crushed" by a notoriously ineffective teacher at Adams Elementary, the failing public school up the street. After exhausting all options for getting her daughter into a better classroom, Jamie stumbles across the state's new "Fail-Safe" law, based loosely on the real-life "Parent-trigger" policies that have been passing state legislatures nationwide. If Jamie can convince a simple majority of parents and teachers to join a coalition to turn Adams around, they can take over the building and reboot the school on their own terms. She pleads with Nona Alberts (Viola Davis), a burnt-out teacher with a struggling child of her own, to give it a shot, asking with a childlike sense of possibility: "Do you wanna start a school with me?" And so begins their grassroots campaign to transform the failing institution into a dream school.