When Mama Ain’t Happy: Screening ‘Won’t Back Down’

By Ross Brenneman — August 23, 2012 4 min read
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Hollywood’s response rate to real events is quickening. Less than two years after the first invocation of a “parent trigger” law in Compton, Calif., comes the first film inspired by that movement.

Currently in advance screenings, “Won’t Back Down” chronicles the struggle of two Pittsburgh mothers who petition their school board to turn around a seemingly apathetic, ineffective elementary school.

What critics expect of a movie produced by the same company behind “Waiting for ‘Superman’ ” is both an attack on teachers’ unions and support for real parent-trigger laws. Momentum from this movie would, perhaps, boost what is currently a slow-growing movement. But the movie is not a full reflection of its trailer.

Is this movie based on a true story?

There are parent-trigger laws. There are teachers. There is a real place named Pittsburgh. But “Won’t Back Down” is inspired by a true story in the same sense that “Gladiator” was inspired by the true story of Rome existing.

The two parents who start the petition, Jamie (the literally unblinking Maggie Gyllenhaal) and Nona (Viola Davis, who corners the market on reluctant heroes), want better lives for their respective children. Failing to win the charter school lottery, the pair unite when Jamie convinces Nona that a petition is the only option left. The movie maintains the focus that this action is entirely parent-driven, devoid of any outside influence.

What form of parent-trigger law is used in “Won’t Back Down”?

Movie-Pennsylvania passed the Fail-Safe Act, a basic trigger law with a twist: The school board will vote on the proposed plan only if the majority of both the school’s parents and its own faculty approve the petition. Or rather, the teachers themselves are given a vote of confidence in the school’s administration. This actually sets up one of the film’s key points of conflict, with teachers deciding between job satisfaction and job security.

Furthermore, the fictional Fail-Safe Act is unlike any parent-trigger laws currently enacted, to the point where the term “parent trigger” isn’t accurate.

“In some cases [for a conversion], it is required to get signatures from a majority of parents and faculty, thereby showing community support. But these are not considered parent triggers,” wrote Josh Cunningham, a research analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures, in an email. “Parent triggers give parents the sole authority to make structural changes in a school’s operation.”

Let’s get back to this school’s teachers. They’re bad, right? Let’s get them fired!

The teacher for Jamie’s adorable daughter, Malia, is the model of a bad educator, more interested in her cellphone than her students’ welfare. The rest of the staff, however, is not just competent, but practically “Dead Poet’s Society” stellar. When Nona tells the faculty that this turnaround can make everyone “the teachers you’ve always wanted to be,” another teacher wryly responds, “What if I already am?”

Indeed, “Won’t Back Down” plays on the fragility and complexity of schools, of systems that work only when administrators, teachers, unions, parents, students, God, and luck align. A conversion will upset that balance and could cost excellent teachers their jobs, but, the movie asks, couldn’t the new balance be better?

The teachers are good, OK. What about unions?

They aren’t heroes here, no, though they get a say. The writers deal with the union through exchanges between the aggressive president, Gould (Ned Eisenberg), and administrator Evelyn Riske (the always perfect Holly Hunter). Evelyn works to deter Jamie while still finding improvement options, but Gould moves to quash any hopes of anyone using a trigger ever, citing Albert Shanker’s infamous (if not exactly real) pronouncement that “When schoolchildren start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of schoolchildren.” Rallying his troops, though, Gould becomes more human. “Teachers with good pay and secure jobs—that’s all we want,” he declares.

An interesting note about the response to “Won’t Back Down": The group Parents Across America, which has been both fighting parent-trigger laws and downplaying this film’s premiere, notes that better strategies for school improvement include local school councils (PDF)—an idea that Shanker himself thought totally discredited. Again: complexity.

But the “villain” in “Won’t Back Down” isn’t a teacher or a union—it’s the frustrations of poverty. In the absence of freedom to pay for a better school, or move, or put a job on the line, Jamie, Nona, and company are dependent on charity and compassion, two resources limited in good times and heavily rationed in bad ones. Jamie just wants a good school for her daughter, Nona doesn’t want her son bullied, and I just want a palomino pony named Daffodil; but lying in bed at night, we know the odds are against us. Here is the limit of human empathy.

“Won’t Back Down,” more than anything, confronts the pain and exhaustion that stem from total obstruction, from being repeatedly denied by life that which seems so reasonably granted. Faced with a growing sense of helplessness, the mothers cling to whatever solution seems left and take hold with something just shy of zealotry. This is the Last Best Hope. This is the last stand. And don’t get in the way, for I am the LORD thy Mom, and I shall not be denied.

“Won’t Back Down” opens nationwide Sept. 28.

A version of this news article first appeared in the K-12 Parents and the Public blog.