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Jamie is a single mother who works; her young, dyslexic daughter attends a failing public school. She can’t afford to move, can’t afford private school tuition, and hasn’t won a place at the local charter school through its sought-after lottery. Nona is a frustrated teacher at that failing public school. In Won’t Back Down, the two come together to pursue a new vision for the school through a process called “taking over the school.”

This movie effectively demonstrates the conundrum that is too often the state of modern American public education. While the teachers’ union is mostly portrayed as the “evil empire,” as one friend put it, a couple of characters speak eloquently of the tension and ambivalence many teachers feel about their loyalty to the union and their frustrations with the system. Every side is represented, though most fall victim to caricature at some point.

The heart of the movie is the message that it’s all about the kids. Teachers, parents, legislators, administrators, and unions all need to keep that central theme in mind. Hard to argue. This well-meaning movie does have heart.

However, with such star power—Viola Davis, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Holly Hunter—I wanted to love it. The actors did the best they could with what they had. But in the end, the film’s militant tone and quick resolution are too simplistic to reflect the complex and nuanced reality of the situation. True, it portrays lots of different perspectives about the educational system, and there are lots of views to be heard. But rather than receiving a full education, I felt like I’d studied the Cliff’s Notes version. (20th Century Fox)

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