The union forever? Not in this treacly but undeniably enjoyable tale of two women attempting to remove the bureaucracy from the US school system.
Only the cynic would completely dismiss Daniel Barnz's ultraearnest drama Won’t Back Down which examines the various woes of the US education system. And while British audiences might fail to connect with this very US-centric debate, at its centre lies a universal message regarding the importance of a good start in life through education.
Opening on a close-up of third grader Malia (Emily Alyn Lind) struggling to read a simple sentence, the scene is then set for a story in which kids are passed through a public schooling system that casually accepts its educational casualties. A crumbling emblem of this failing system is John Adam’s Elementary where, within the drab classrooms, bureaucracy rules and teachers care more about tenure than teaching kids their ABCs.
Enter a tousle-haired, tattooed Maggie Gyllenhaal as the girl’s working class, sassy, single-mom, Jamie. A bullish parent in a desperate situation, she takes it upon herself to tackle the problem. Whilst Gyllenhaal lacks the necessary gusto of a militant mom to convince us entirely, her performance is bolstered by a crabby yet kind, Viola Davis.
The star of The Help plays a teacher trying to rekindle her passion for teaching whilst hinting at a tragic secret that inspires her actions. The pair crusade to provide the kids with the education they need by creating a new ‘non-union’ school that puts parental concerns and good teaching first.
Some may argue that this drama is an over simplification of the issues and was better handled in Davis Guggenheim’s Waiting For 'Superman'. Such complaints fall on practically deaf ears this side of the pond, while the structure and piquant script pull the story along at a satisfying pace. Matters are only occasionally tainted by an over reliance on the saccharine (it’s a Disney film after all.).
The bureaucratic unions are painted broadly shown most succulently by Machiavellian duo Holly Hunter and Ned Eisenberg as the big cheeses of the AFT. A love interest is tossed in for Gyllenhaal in the form of a ukulele-playing, toothpick-chewing Texan teacher (Oscar Isaac), who divides his love for Gyllenhaal’s Jamie with his loyalty to the unions. He becomes a surrogate father to Lind's Malia, who herself offers up an enjoyably emotive performance.
Each aspect of the tale fits well together, revealing a succinct and easily digestible drama that is a straight-talking, partisan account about the failings of a broken system and a band of women who argued for better for their children.
A very quiet release (always ominous), yet with Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis steering the drama you can at least expect strong performances.
Structurally sound with a snappy script (for the most part) cumulating in a brazenly biased solid drama.
Lightweight in how it handles a complex issue, rattling along in what is an inconsequential but heartfelt drama.