Won’t Back Down is a work of fiction, which is to some degree inspired by “true events,” but it plays just like one of those full-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 teacher Nona Alberts (Viola Davis) in a struggling public 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 Jamie doesn’t help.
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.