Apologies upfront for this review being so late, although the Blu-ray arrived late in the mail I had set some time aside to watch it but then some car troubles left me stranded for most of the night and then needed my immediate attention the days following to make arrangements for my other jobs. However, like our plucky, can-do, single mom protagonist I won’t back down from the challenge. So was this movie worth the wait?
Let’s start the synopsis before you pee your pants in class.
Won’t Back Down is one of those “based on actual events” stories that is merely inspired by events and then over dramatized for entertainment purposes. The story follows frantic, working-two-jobs-to-make-ends-meet, single parent Jamie Fitzpatrick (Gyllenhaal) desperately trying to get her young, dyslexic daughter into a better school. When a lottery to get the daughter into the better one fails she decides to hijack the school and start her own curriculum. Along the way she inspires and relights the spark in the no-nonsense teacher, Nona Alberts (Davis). Together they form an unlikely pair, much like Riggs and Murtaugh, to reform their failing inner city school and stick it to the maze like bureaucracy of the educational system.
The opening segment is the mission statement for everything wrong with public education. Showcasing the problem at hand in a few quick moments we bear witness to a terrible classroom. Inattentive students, some playing video games, fooling around, or completely checked out are left to their own devices as the teacher texts on her phone. One poor student desperately attempts to read the sentence on the board but is struggling. She’s nervous, others make fun of her which only makes the discomfort worse, and the teacher merely tells her to try again, never looking up. No one makes the effort to help and the student gives up.
The problem I have is that the movie says everything it needs to right there but continues to show us the same details over and over again throughout the two hour runtime. At a certain point the director feels like he’s just generating another conflict for the sake of conflict in the hopes that his audience isn’t bored away yet. Instead we’re treated to long monologues where everybody yells exactly what they’re thinking, what they should do, what was done before, etc. There’s actually a moment where Ghyllenhall’s character is speaking to her followers, in a plea to the board of educators, on behalf of their new curriculum. The way it’s shot though has the unintentional effect of her speaking directly to the camera and thus the audience. It’s meant to be the conclusion to the message they’ve been spouting the whole movie, a solution to their woes and it winds up coming across as a creepy, feature-length PSA.
Everyone is a cardboard cutout, a facsimile for good or evil, so there’s no depth or real knowledge about the various players in the system. I didn’t like Waiting for Superman all that much either but I found its decision to focus on the real-world situation in a documentary style to be a more effective look into the failing schools. In the end I didn’t connect with the material and found it to be predictably hollow with lots of crying on cue. It starts out with the best of intentions but ends on such a groan worthy celebratory self-high five that I felt I had just spent the day wasting away in a classroom, I audibly groaned during the final line and I couldn’t get the disc out of my player fast enough.
I hate to admit it but my distaste for the movie was no fault of the picture quality, the Blu-Ray looks great with a nice, sharp image, and great levels of detail. The way the filmmakers chose to color the movie was also a smart choice. At the beginning you have strong blues and grays that really highlight the monotony and dullness of the world but slowly as the movie continues and progress is made more and more color is injecting life into the frame until the school is quite vibrant. The audio, sadly, is a mixed bag. Sometimes the dialogue is crystal clear other times it sounds muffled and I kept playing with the volume control.
For Special Features you have your usual trailers and sneak peaks. Then there are the deleted scenes and director Daniel Barnz’ commentary, which I didn’t find very interesting. Two short segments are available: The Importance of Education has the cast and crew discussing their mission with this movie which just heaps on the self-righteousness, wasn’t really worth my time. The other is A Tribute to Teachers which has the cast and crew discussing teachers that inspired them to succeed, it was great and feels much looser, they’re just reflecting on who helped them in that developmental stage of their lives and I found it rather sweet.
– The Nona character is like a checklist for self-righteous, martyr figures: Teacher in a bad school, has a son with a learning disability, a failing marriage, struggles to accept the call to action, has a deep secret that is never hinted at but then she TELLS us in an awful monologue.
– The dude teacher and love interest is played by Oscar Isaac, he played Standard in Drive and when I found out I was very confused. Apparently the man is a chameleon. He’s also playing the title role in the Coen Brothers next feature Inside Llewyn Davis.
– After watching, I showed Mama Kill the trailer. I am now certain that she is the intended audience more so than I was. She’s already planning her night with a bottle of chardonnay and some snacks. So if that’s not an endorsement for the movie I don’t know what is.
Won’t Back Down [Blu-ray] is available in stores NOW.
Review by Bro’ J – Jonathan Killoran
We received product to facilitate this review. All opinions are our own.