As I started writing on Monday, I went to “Won’t Back Down” over the weekend. I was literally too tired to finish the post on Sunday – and Monday and yesterday, things got just a little bit crazy.
As I noted at the time, I generally hate teacher movies. I’m a teacher’s kid, grandkid, older brother and, for that matter, a former teacher, more or less, myself.
But more than either of those, school choice is a hot topic for me, since the Saint Paul Public Schools ranged between worthless and toxic to my children. So while I’m not big into “heroic teacher” fable films, I’m more than ready for a movie about school choice.
Anyway – I saw the trailer for Won’t Back Down a few weeks back, and I thought I more or less figured it out. The trailer featured…:
- The Magic Protected Classes: you know the drill. The wise old black matron is always the wisest person in the movie, except for Morgan Freeman. Every single mother oozes dignity. White middle-class people are impacted and defective.
- A Cartoonish Enemy: a facetless, single-dimension kick toy for all that is wrong in the school in quextion. Usually localized, usually beyond any of the locals’ control.
- A Sympathetic but challenging love interest: usually improbably virtuous.
- Some Cartoonish Side-Villains: The husband, or ex-husband, or (white male) boss of any of the protagonists is usually fair game. .
- A Heart-Warming Denouement: There is usually a triumphant final scene, usually in the school gym.
And all of these button-pushing cliches are present in heaping portion in Won’t Back Down. And it’d be easy to write the movie off there.
And it’d be a huge mistake – because woven in and among the “Teacher Movie” cliches is a really excellent movie and, perhaps more importantly, a movie that makes a fairly honest accounting of a very complex issue.
This movie is complicated. And that’s a good thing.
The Magic PC People
The movie’s marquee protagonist, an overextended but supernaturally cute single-mom bartender and car-saleswoman played by Maggie Gyllenhall, chews on the scenery like Phil Niekro attacking a can of Skoal. Rebuffed by a clock-punching principal when trying to get a better teacher for her dyslexic daughter at her run-down failing school, I half expected to see the Spice Girls jump out and start dancing as she hammered out her big applause line (“You know those women who lift cars off their children? They’ve got nothing on me!”) like a steam press stamping out door panels. Improbably, the only scene where Gyllenhall doesn’t feel like she’s trying to orate is the one where her character is, well, trying to orate – speaking at a rally of parents she and her plucky teaching compatriot managed to organize. Suddenly, she’s subdued. Go figure.
We’ve seen this character before – Julia Roberts played the same lady in “Erin Brockovich”, and did it a whole lot more believably. Gyllenhall’s most effectve scene – when she and her daughter learn they’ve been passed over for a seat at a charter school – is the only one where she says absolutely nothing. The camera lingers on the two as they stare, dazed, as the focus swirls about them in a brilliantly innovative bit of cinematography that, along with Gyllenhall’s silent face, says more than the script possibly could have.
Viola Davis, on the other hand, playing a teacher with a crumbling marriage and a creeping case of professional burnout, is brilliant. Her part is tailor-made to be turned into a tired cliche. Her marriage (to Lance Reddick) is failing fast, and in the movie’s first scenes, it’s hard to tell which of the burned-out teachers is going to be the movie’s real villain. Davis – with a couple of Tony awards and an Oscar nomination under her belt – plays a role that is historically liable to drift into melodrama – but plays it with nuance and style, and all of the subtlety that Gyllenhall lacks.
The bad guy in “teacher movies” is usually a cartoon. And that’s usually not the worst part.
“The Enemy” in teacher movies is generally one of two things; an administration motivated by some melodramatic, impersonal inertial brought about either by some personal perfidy (sort of the education versions of John Lithgow’s character in “Footloose”) or some generalized social ill that’s beyond anyone’s human control. The antagonist is, thus, either an easily-dismissed cartoon or some pathology so big that no real person – only “the system” is to blame.
The enemy in Won’t Back Down is a little bit of both. Gyllenhall’s daughter’s teacher is a bovine, burned-out waste, a woman punching the clock until her pension kicks in (who only seems like a caricature if you haven’t had kids in the public schools lately), who is protected by the teacher’s union.
Now, teachers’ unions have been up in arms over Won’t Back Down, which is just further evidence that many of ‘em shouldn’t be teaching your kids without supervision. The movie presented as balanced a picture of unions as I can recall in a recent move; no less than three major characters – the “Sympathetic But Challenging Love Interest”, the Greasy Unsympathetic White Guy who runs the union, and his organizer, filling the “Enemy With A Heart Of Gold” role (played by Holly Hunter) testify more or less eloquently on why we have unions and why they can be a very good thing. I doubt I’ve ever seen a movie ever spell out the positive case for teachers unions, at least on an idealistic level.
The movie is fair, but it doesn’t chicken out; ideals notwithstanding, the unions fight dirty to try to keep the parents from taking over and converting the school to a non-union charter school.
As to side-villains? That was a huge surprise; the dissolution of Viola Davis’ character’s marriage, in a lesser movie, would give it a cheesy side-villain. It seems the movie is setting Reddick’s character – a black yuppie who builds model World War 2 fighter planes for a hobby – up to be that venal little distraction. Again, it doesn’t take the easy way out.
The Big Finish
These movies always end with the big finish – the math meet, the writing context, the basketball game, the ultimate court hearing, whatever. In this case, it’s the big Pittsburgh School Board meeting where the board votes on the proposal to (near as I can tell) pull the school out of the public system and become a self-governed charter school.
I won’t spoil it – not that you can’t probably figure it out yourself – although I will point out (pursuant to the “Magic Protected Classes” part of the formula), that the wise black and elderly female Jewish vote does unite against the clenched WASP contingent in the final vote. Which is pretty much de rigeur these days.
At any rate – the movie is not immune from the ravages of the Hollywood formula. Somehow – more or less miraculously, I think – they managed include the better part of a pretty good, sometimes challenging movie in there. It’s the first significant move I’ve seen to address school choice – and in between the odd bits of Hollywood, it did a decent job, without oversimplifying (at least in Hollywood terms, and the inevitable shorthand that has to go into fitting a topic as old as the hills, and which has been in the headlines for a couple of decades now, into two hours.