A couple of years ago, I was in an adult kickball league. It was the same as kickball you played when you’re a kid, only there’s alcohol involved and because your bones are more brittle, there’s a higher probability of injury. I enjoyed the hell out it for two seasons until I took up an offer to go to a bar afterwards with a few of my randomly-selected teammates. They were in the early 20s, mostly just out of college, and it turned out that, outside of kickball, I had absolutely nothing to contribute to their hook-up conversations, dim employment prospects, and post-collegiate struggles. When one teammate asked me what my major was, I took my cue, left the bar, and decided that people with kids are probably too old to be playing kickball.
As you progress through the stages of adulthood, that banal, small-talk question — “What’s your major?” — begins to take different forms. First, you find yourself talking about rents, or certain neighborhoods or apartment complexes. Before long, you’re talking about billable hours, real estate and the home buying market, then about birth stories, the best parks around town, and pre-K education. (It’s best never to listen to yourself while engaged in small talk, lest you shoot yourself in the head). Suddenly you wake up one morning and the parents of your kid’s friends are your friends, and school and school districts are a weirdly fascinating topic of conversation.
It’s that particular subset of people — teachers and parents with a keen interest in their kids public-school education — that might be drawn to a movie like Won’t Back Down, a fairly bland, treacly and lethargic “inspirational” film about a hard-scrabble single mom and a teacher beat down by the system who decide to take control of a Pittsburgh school and run it themselves. Basically, it’s a movie about fighting teachers’ unions, school boards, bureaucratic red tape, and the administrative process. Exciting stuff! It’s a corny, inarticulate and ham-fisted fictionalized version of Waiting for Superman pitting well-meaning parents against the mean old unions that protect the jobs of lazy and underperforming teachers.
Won’t Back Down, much like the bureaucracy at the center of the film, moves like molasses, as the single mom marshals the support of parents, and then teachers, and then school boards, the last impediment standing between them and a parent-and-teacher ran school with failure rates higher than most public schools. But no matter: Don’t let reality stand in the way of a inspirational tale about creating an educational environment more supportive of children with a reading disorder.
I wouldn’t recommend Won’t Back Down to my worst enemy, and yet, if you’re one of those boring people like myself who find yourself mired in conversations about the public school system, it’s oddly engaging. Not because the writing is good, because it’s not. It’s melodrama steeped in sentiment wrapped in swelling violins. Even the performances are shockingly bad. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays a hyper, overly earnest blue-collar single mom with a dyslexic daughter, while Viola Davis plays the put-upon teacher with surprise third-act alcohol addiction who is fighting against her own colleagues, and they both act as though they’ve just graduated from the Lifetime Network school of acting. It’s all hokey speeches about our kids’ future, ra-ra determination, and picket-line chanting.
Yet, they’re speaking to something that’s not often spoke of in motion pictures (for good reason) — local bureaucracies, school boards, teachers’ unions, and charter schools — and it’s nice to see those interests represented by major movie stars, even if they’re handled with all the grace of a farting ballerina with club feet, and even if they fail to make it any more interesting than idle chit chat between parents. It’s not a movie I enjoyed, but it is a movie I’m more likely to discuss at a PTO meeting than Looper, which just goes to show how backwards our real-life priorities are. Looper is obviously more important than the women and men who teach our children how to read, and if everyone shared my worldview, our grown-up conversations would be a lot more interesting.