Friday, September 28, 2012

Won't Back Down: Belongs in detention

Won't Back Down (2012) • View trailer
2.5 stars. Rating: PG, for dramatic intensity and brief violence
By Derrick Bang

Advocacy cinema is nothing new, and in some cases serendipitous timing can help raise public awareness of an important issue; the most famous example remains The China Syndrome, and its coincidental proximity to the partial nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island, which took place 12 days after the film was released.

When Jamie (Maggie Gyllenhaal, left) and Nona (Viola Davis) team up to take over
the local public school and — hopefully — build it into something bigger and better,
they're faced with an avalanche of paperwork: reams of forms that need to be
filled out properly, lest their proposal never even leave the starting gate.
But dramas that trivialize significant real-world issues can be extremely irritating, particularly when the filmmakers resort to ludicrous dollops of soap-style melodrama, as is the case with Won’t Back Down.

The American public school system has become a national tragedy, and the many teachers’ unions do themselves no favors by adhering to hard-line policies that favor their own employment over the desperate need for reform and bureaucratic streamlining. Yes, it’s a complicated issue, with economic malaise, parental hostility and student indifference deserving their share of the blame.

But those fires of parental hostility have been stoked, in great part, by the system’s apparent refusal to consider reform, let alone embrace it. And since art always imitates life, we wind up with the likes of dramas “inspired by actual events” ... which is to say, thinly suggested by real-world activity but mostly made up.

The passion at work here is laudable, as are the performances by stars Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal. But director Daniel Barnz’s film is clumsy and one-sided, his script — co-written with Brin Hill — as unbalanced as kid-centric TV sitcoms that score points by making all adults look like blithering idiots.

It’s perhaps telling to recall that Won't Back Down was a can’t-miss event at both the Democratic and Republican conventions, where it drew applause and prompted lively follow-up panel discussions. And that seems to have been Barnz’s primary goal: to score political points, rather than to make a good movie.

But people rarely are persuaded by material that offends their intelligence — and/or pisses them off — and that’s the core problem here. Few things are more irritating than a filmmaker who piles on contrivance and artificial tension with a trowel.

Gyllenhaal stars as Jamie Fitzpatrick, a struggling single mother who lives in a working-class Pittsburgh neighborhood and juggles two jobs while trying to ease the schoolwork anxieties endured by her dyslexic daughter, Malia (Emily Alyn Lind). The girl’s reading disability aside, her major problem is the shrike of a teacher (Nancy Bach) who teaches third grade at the local public school.

This character, a callous bully who can’t be bothered to teach, immediately signals the insufferably overstated style that infects the entire film. Every time we see this witch, she’s either humiliating her young students — ultimately, to the point of child abuse — or defiantly striding through the teacher’s lounge, proudly enduring taunts about being the highest-paid and lowest-performing instructor in the school.

I’ll give Bach points for getting us to loathe her so quickly and completely, but come on, folks; there’s a big difference between incompetence and outright cruelty. This monster would have been hauled out in handcuffs long ago, so-called “union protection” be damned. If Barnz and Hill need to resort to this sort of exaggeration to make their case, they obviously ignored the lessons of Screenplay 101.

Anyway, Jamie’s efforts to get Malia moved into another class are met with indifference and denial at every turn, from the school’s equally stubborn and heartless principal (Bill Nunn, also in a thankless role), to the district rules apparently designed to prevent parent participation, rather than encourage it.

More than anything, Jamie wants her daughter to be taught by the likes of Nona Alberts (Davis), a dedicated — if worn down — teacher in an adjoining classroom; or Michael Perry (Oscar Isaac), the school’s enthusiastic and beloved-by-kids music instructor.

Since Jamie is a never-say-die, go-getter type, who has honed her persuasive chops by selling used cars at a flyspeck lot of highly dubious quality, she refuses to abandon this quixotic quest. After currying favor with a sympathetic district receptionist (Lucia Forte, in a brief but memorable role), Jamie learns that it’s possible to “take over” a school, if allied with enough willing parents and teachers.

Nona is the obvious first choice from the teaching pool, but she’s wary of rocking the boat. She also has plenty of her own problems at home, notably an impatient husband (Lance Reddick) inches away from divorce, apparently because of the relationship stress caused by their own learning-impaired son (Dante Brown).

Oh, yes: Nona also carries A Big Secret, which somehow ties in with her marital anxiety, and which the script hints at constantly. The disclosure of this little bombshell, in the third act, prompted genuine hostility from Tuesday evening’s preview audience. It’s not merely one stupid contrivance too many; it’s frankly offensive ... and makes a lie of this character’s behavior throughout the entire film.

Not even an actress of Davis’ stature could pull that one off.

Naturally, Jamie and Michael become an item, despite his discomfort with her mounting anti-union feelings. This relationship apparently exists so that these characters can give lip service to the two sides of that particular argument, but the flimsy efforts at this “debate” are weak and unconvincing ... as is the courtship itself. Rarely have two lovers displayed less chemistry.

Once Jamie and Nona build up some momentum, they naturally attract the attention of the local union officials, Evelyn Riske (Holly Hunter) and her laughably arrogant boss, Arthur Gould (Ned Eisenberg), a pompous jerk who serves as the mouthpiece for the protect-the-teachers-at-all-costs-and-students-be-damned side of the equation.

Gould is this story’s political dirty trickster, stooping to character assassination as a matter of personal pride. And when Riske displays some conscience and questions his behavior, Gould imperiously responds with a quote he attributes to his idol, famed UFT/AFT president Albert Shanker: “When schoolchildren start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of schoolchildren.”

Actually, the authenticity of that quote remains in serious doubt, but hey: We can’t expect a little thing like historical accuracy to interfere with Barnz’s storyline, right?

The unbalanced script aside, Gyllenhaal is radiant and charismatic as the hard-charging Jamie. She’s also endearing, forever mangling words in her enthusiasm: a legacy of her own unsuccessful public school education (and one of the few times this film inserts a character trait with subtlety, rather than with a sledge hammer).

We can easily see Jamie as a parent advocate, because Gyllenhaal successfully sells her character. Despite the plot’s many contrivances, at the core we have Gyllenhaal’s protective mother, and she deserves credit for the degree to which the rest of this mess becomes palatable.

Davis, as mentioned, faces impossible odds. She persuasively navigates the transition from worn-down teacher to hopeful reform advocate, prompted in part by the memories that spill from a carton filled with mementos from Nona’s earlier, more passionate teaching days. Davis’ strength has always been her ability to convey mental torment via her expressive and often anguished features; we naturally sympathize with a woman who suffers so much but stubbornly endures.

But although Davis builds plenty of good will, she cannot get beyond the extreme dysfunction of her character’s home life.

Perry is amiable and easy on the eyes, and he has a natural grace on camera. Michael is one of this story’s understated characters, which is to the film’s advantage; he adds a measure of calm to the often overly shrill tone.

Rosie Perez is engaging but under-developed as Breena Harper, Nona’s best friend and a fellow teacher. Marianne Jean-Baptiste is strikingly memorable as Olivia Lopez, chair of the local board of education; she owns the film’s climactic scenes.

We never get a good bead on Hunter’s Evelyn Riske, who apparently represents the long-absent soul of the teachers' union. Hunter isn’t given enough screen time to build a three-dimensional character, and as a result serves mostly as a mouthpiece for clichéd statements; when she speaks, we see the puppeteer’s strings.

Production designer Rusty Smith does a nice job with Jamie’s working-class surroundings, and particularly the cramped apartment she shares with her daughter.

I applaud the overall intent here, but the execution leaves much to be desired. A strong, well-argued drama certainly can be built upon this topic, but Won’t Back Down ain't that film.

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