Combustible Celluloid
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With: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Oscar Isaac, Holly Hunter, Rosie Perez, Emily Alyn Lind, Dante Brown, Lance Reddick, Ving Rhames, Bill Nunn, Ned Eisenberg, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Liza Colón-Zayas, Nancy Bach, Keith Flippen
Written by: Daniel Barnz, Brin Hill
Directed by: Daniel Barnz
MPAA Rating: PG for thematic elements and language
Running Time: 121
Date: 09/28/2012

Won't Back Down (2012)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Teacher Preachers

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Won't Back Down is a work of fiction, which is somewhat inspired by "events," but it plays just like one of those fully-fledged "based on a true story" movies you've probably seen (North Country, Pride, Conviction, etc.). Even the generic title could be swapped for any of the others; nobody ever seems to back down in any of them.

Low-income single parent Jamie Fitzpatrick (Maggie Gyllenhaal) joins forces with a teacher Nona Alberts (Viola Davis) in a struggling school to try to take over and make improvements for both Jamie's dyslexic daughter and Nona's troubled son. Unfortunately, this upsets the unions, and director and co-writer Daniel Barnz provides some equal dialogue for them, just to make sure they're not totally villainized.

The story is designed and decorated rather than told. Jamie supposedly lives in a rundown apartment, but it seems cozy enough. (Our cue is that she drinks instant coffee.) Moreover, characters spend each scene reading complex dialogue that advances the plot, and are given "business" to do while they're speaking, i.e. untangling phone cords or being interrupted by doorbells. And no, bringing Oscar Isaac on board as a romantic interest for Gyllenhaal doesn't help. There's even a token FX scene as the characters appear doubled as they wearily knock on doors with petitions.

Barnz occasionally slows things down for Gyllenhaal and Davis to breathe; Gyllenhaal is especially haunting in an early scene where she realizes she has lost a lottery for a good school. But while moving forward and not backing down, Won't Back Down is a lifeless film, more concerned with issues than with filmmaking.
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