Settle in for a showing of Won’t Back Down, and you’ll be greeted with a trailer for Here Comes the Boom. Both movies are about schools in trouble. The teachers and students are apathetic, administrators are obstructionist, and money is tight. In Here Comes the Boom, a 42-year-old biology teacher played by Kevin James sets out to raise $50,000 to save the arts programs at his school, inspire his students, and win the love of a cardigan-wearing Salma Hayek by becoming a Mixed Martial Arts fighter.
Won’t Back Down is a more serious-minded film with a much more talented cast. But its premise is, unfortunately, nearly as implausible. A single mother (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and a disillusioned teacher (Viola Davis) band together to fix a failing Pittsburgh school, relying on a fudged and fictionalized version of the “parent trigger” laws that exist in California and three other states. In the film, the reformers must get 50 percent of the parents and 50 percent of the teachers to sign on to a plan to revamp the school—breaking the union in the process—all before they can get a hearing. That isn't exactly how these laws work in real life, but the general sense of hopelessness, insane bureaucracy, and long odds are adequately conveyed.
In the post Waiting for Superman-era, the elements of the story are predictable: A dramatic crowd scene where hundreds pray for one of the tiny number of slots available at a successful neighborhood charter school. A depressing classroom shot in which a tenured teacher ignores her illiterate, innumerate, and ill-behaved students while fiddling with her cellphone. The inevitable romance between the single mom and the adorable Teach for America guy (Oscar Issac). The door-to-door signature gathering montage. The rally. The climactic school board vote.
The movie is well made, and quite painless, considering the genre. The necessary explainers are handled smoothly and with some humor (Gyllenhal’s character, the inappropriately clad Erin Brockovich of school reform, asks why her daughter's terrible teacher can’t be fired and then shouts, exasperated, “Oh yeah, ‘cuz she’s tenurized!”) And Davis’ dead-eyed stare when that same teacher pours herself the last of the coffee and then waltzes out of the teachers’ lounge without making a new pot is terrifyingly true-to-life.
The film even goes out of its way to give teachers unions their due—we hear all about about “Mr. Cooper” who would have lost his job for showing his kids Hair if it weren't for the union—but ultimately slots union fat cats as the villains. One particularly nice moment has a union bigwig, played Holly Hunter in a marvelously clichéd beige beret, trying to buy off Gyllenhaal with what is essentially a voucher—a scholarship to a private school where her dyslexic daughter will get special attention.
That fact, combined with a generally heated atmosphere over school choice thanks to the teachers' strike in Chicago and protests around the country, meant the film would inevitably cause controversy. The organizers of the Democratic National Convention were nervous about hosting a screening there this summer, for instance, while their Republican counterparts happily demagogued the film at their convention. And teachers unions protested outside the movie's New York premier. (Sample shouty slogan from their own YouTube video, Educating Maggie: "Parent trigger hasn't been tried, and parent trigger doesn't work!") Yet director and writer Daniel Barnz (inevitably, the son and grandson of teachers) said in an interview that he finds the controversy around Don’t Back Down “perplexing.” Gyllenhaal has also said she “has been really surprised by the controversy, to be honest.”
The action of the film takes place over a whirlwind two months, and the logic of Hollywood makes only one ending possible—a coda in which singing, smiling children are applauded by beaming, triumphant adults. But in real life, no parent trigger has yet been successfully pulled, and starting a charter school from scratch, even in relatively innovation-friendly cities like Washington, D.C., or New Orleans, can take years. As the hard-bitten administrative assistant at the movie's Pittsburgh superintendent’s office says “the parents always give up.”
The most accurate analysis of most reformers' chances for success may come from Gyllenhaal's on-screen daughter, Malia. After an impassioned speech in which her mom vows that "we're going to get you out of there," she responds with a perfect, furiously indifferent “whatever."
The film's dramatic denouement relies on a series of lucky coincidences: A teacher who happens to have an entire curriculum and school management plan stashed in a Xerox box in the back of her closet. A departing head of schools with a guilty conscience and a willingness to bend the rules. And a conflicted union official who pulls punches in the fight. A few may get their own Hollywood endings, but most would-be school reformers won’t be so fortunate.