‘Won’t Back Down’: Why This Education Movie Matters

Maggie Gyllenhaal's decision to star in a schmaltzy takedown of teachers unions just might move education reform into the mainstream

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20th Century Fox

When the journalist Mickey Kaus reviewed cars, he would sometimes ask if they passed the “Saturday night test” — meaning regardless of how well they drove, would he want to pick a date up in one? After watching Won’t Back Down a few times in screenings this year, I found myself asking essentially the same question: my wife and I work in education, but I’m not sure the new Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, and Holly Hunter film clears the bar for date night. The predictable storyline feels more like a 1980s after-school special than a big screen movie. But what’s actually on the screen for two hours isn’t what makes Won’t Back Down matter so much for education.

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Despite its sugary Hallmark quality, Won’t Back Down is a serious film about a grim reality — parents and teachers stuck in a system that puts kids last. Gyllenhaal plays Jamie Fitzpatrick, a mom struggling to help her daughter while juggling all the other balls a single mom must keep in the air — work, life, flickering hope of romance. Her daughter’s dysfunctional school is a roadblock to a better future for her, and Fitzpatrick is determined to fix that. She enlists the help of a frustrated teacher (Viola Davis) to try to force the school board to improve the school under a district rule giving parents the ability to force action.

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The film also has some nuance, unlike the blunt force trauma that tends to dominate education debates. A Teach For America teacher is portrayed not as a caricature of a noble savior or unwitting dupe but rather as a serious young person struggling to make sense of the conflicting values he encounters in a screwed-up urban school system. Played by Oscar Isaac, this teacher tries to reconcile his belief in unions as a tool of social justice with the jobs-and-adults-first reality he finds in his school district. That conflict plays out so frequently in urban schools, frustrating and confusing many young teachers, that it could be the basis of a film in its own right.

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Won’t Back Down is loosely based on the idea of the “parent trigger” law that allows dissatisfied parents to vote whether to overhaul their child’s school.But Hollywood is ahead of policymakers on this issue. Only seven states have passed “trigger” laws, and parents have yet to actually take control of a school using this kind of policy. In California, where two attempts have been made, both times parents have run into a buzz saw of opposition far harsher than what is portrayed in the film. (At least school district officials and teachers unions can agree on one thing—they don’t want parents calling the shots.) And Won’t Back Down doesn’t get into the difficult question of what happens when parents end up getting their way, something that concerns even those sympathetic to families.

(MORE: Parent Trigger Laws: Shutting Schools, Raising Controversy)

But the most important thing about Won’t Back Down is not the story or the policy, it’s the symbolism. When Gyllenhaal’s brother, actor Jake Gyllenhaal, played a gay cowboy in 2005’s Brokeback Mountain, he was praised for taking what was then considered a career risk. That film ended up being a significant moment in America’s evolving acceptance of homosexuals. Given how contentious education reform is, there are certainly safer roles for Maggie Gyllenhaal, a hip actress on her way up, than playing a mom going head to head with the local teachers union. The film’s New York premier was picketed by protesters on Sunday, and the national teachers unions are furiously seeking to discredit it. (Talking point No. 1: one of the film’s production companies, Walden Media, is owned by conservative billionaire Philip Anschutz.)

(MORE: 12 Education Activists to Watch: Maggie Gyllenhaal)

Whether it’s ultimately a cause or effect, Gyllenhaal’s decision to do Won’t Back Down says a lot about how education reform is moving from margins to mainstream. Gyllenhaal and her costars are themselves not backing down in the face of criticism that the film is a school reform propaganda piece. On Monday’s Today Show, Oscar nominee Viola Davis made clear that she understands firsthand how important education is in breaking the cycle of poverty. She grew up poor and seems to have little patience for those resisting efforts to improve public school. “It’s a system that’s broken and needs to be fixed,” she said on the show.

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Whether the film’s protesters know it or not, they are spectacular foils for Won’t Back Down. Between the teachers unions carping that the movie is unfair and activists claiming that giving parents more power is akin to privatization, the critics have succeeded in turning a forgettable education story into a national conversation piece. That’s for the good. Because whatever you think of the film or of the idea of parent triggers as public policy, the plight of families trapped year after year in unacceptable schools is far more gut-wrenching than anything Hollywood could cook up.