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Won't Back Down also known as “Learning to Fly,” “Steel Town,” “Still I Rise”

MPAA Rating: PG-Rating (MPAA) for thematic elements and language.

Reviewed by: Alexander Malsan

Moviemaking Quality:

Primary Audience:
Adults Family
2 hr. 1 min.
Year of Release:
USA Release:
September 28, 2012 (wide—2,500+ theaters)
DVD: January 15, 2013
Copyright, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation click photos to ENLARGE Copyright, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation Copyright, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation Copyright, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation Copyright, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation Copyright, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation Copyright, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation Copyright, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation Copyright, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Relevant Issues
Copyright, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

public education system

failing inner city school



Featuring: Maggie GyllenhaalJamie Fitzpatrick
Viola DavisNona Alberts
Oscar IsaacMichael Perry
Holly Hunter … Evelyn Riske
Rosie PerezBreena Harper
Ving RhamesPrincipal Thompson
See all »
Director: Daniel Barnz
Producer: Walden Media
Mark Johnson … producer
See all »
Distributor: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

“If you can’t beat the system… change it.”

Inspired by a true story, Jamie Fitzpatrick (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a single mom trying to raise her young daughter, Malia, in a small residential area of Pennsylvania. Malia and her mother, as we learn, have a disability, dyslexia, which makes reading and writing a very difficult task. Jamie has increasingly noticed Malia struggling in academics at her school, Adams Elementary, “a failing school,” and notices that her teacher doesn’t seem to care that she is struggling. Jamie realizes the need to get her daughter out of that particular classroom and moved to another class, however she is told by the principal that it isn’t possible.

Meanwhile, another mother and teacher from Adams Elementary, Nona Alberts (played by {Raw}Viola Davis), has begun to notice that her son is learning at a slower rate than the other students in class and begins to realize, through talking with Jamie, that the school may very well be failing her son in helping him become successful in his studies. Jamie and Nona decide that a change is in order for Adams Elementary. They discover the Parents Trigger Law (passed originally in California and then to many other states in 2010) that allows the parents, if they feel that the public school is failing, to “create a petition to overrule the administrators of that failing public school which can also lead to the release of current staff and convert that public school into a charter school.” Will the two moms be successful in changing Adams Elementary, or will all their hard work be in vain?

I can see how this movie can be considered controversial. Some have called this movie an “anti-union movie.” I, for one, disagree with the negative comments. The two moms, Jamie and Nona, are fighting not just for their children’s education, which is the primary drive behind the movement and this film, but for other students who were at a disadvantage at Adams Elementary, as well. They are fighting for a better education that, as Jamie says in the movie, she never received (in Jamie’s case she says that it was because of her dyslexia). That’s the message behind this movie. If we truly wish to fight for something, something as vital as our children’s education, then we can’t be afraid to take a stand and fight. These moms believe in what they are fighting for, and though the head of the Pennsylvania teacher’s union tries to play dirty at times, the two moms still keep fighting with honesty in their hearts and in their words.

Having said that, I know, from personal experience, what it is like to have to struggle with academics. I think most of us have struggled in that, at one point, in our schooling. How students are educated plays such an important part in their overall development into adulthood. Children don’t care about the politics behind schools. They simply wish to learn. At one point, Jamie reminds everyone, during the hearing, that is why they started the petition in the first place, not to fight the union, but rather to fight for the children’s right to a good education. That is the message that I drew from this movie.

Cinematically speaking, I was very pleased with this film. Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis steal the show in their performances. I was impressed with how well they worked together. Even the supporting characters, such as Malia (though she says very little), give excellent performances. The story is good, with enough substance to keep me interested for two hours. I felt drawn in by this film’s message of commitment and perseverance. There is little to no music in this film, and the camera work is fine.

Objectionable Material

“Won’t Back Down” is rated PG for “thematic elements and language.” I won’t lie. It’s a pretty powerful film, hence the need for the thematic elements label attached to the rating. However, there is some objectionable material in this film that is worth mention.

Violence: Mild. There are a couple scenes of mild violence. In one instance, some children tease Malia and rip her backpack. Nona’s son is shown, as well, with blood on his shirt when he comes home at the beginning of the film.

Language: Moderate. In terms of actual cursing, there are two instances of “a**,” one instance of “bas**rds,” and one instance of “d**n.” God’s name is used in vain three times, as well as the term “jeez.” Other crudity includes Jamie being called a “stupid cow,” Jamie mentioning luck being a “foxy lady,” one teacher being known as the “Sexy Texy,” the terms “retarded,” “jerks,” “scumbags,” “s*cks,” and “scr*w” are also used.

Sex/Nudity: Mild. The movie limits this content to a couple scenes of kissing between Jamie and the music teacher at Adams Elementary.

Other Content: There are three scenes of alcohol use, one at a restaurant between adults, and two at a bar that Jamie works at.

As I have stated before, the main lesson that I drew from this film is a positive message of courage and never being afraid to stand up for what is right. Jamie and Nona never give up in their fight for a better education (even at the expense of Nona being put on academic suspension from Adams Elementary). In the same way, we are to fight for Jesus, even though many may refuse us and laugh at us, even persecute us. In the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:10), Jesus states:

“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (New International Version).

“Won’t Back Down” is a powerful film and one that I am pleased to recommend, to teens and adults (children will probably not understand the politics behind this movie and the language may also be enough to discourage parents from bringing their children). It’s not often I commend the writers behind a film, and for that I say, “Thank you.” Thank you for giving us a movie that will inspire us to fight for what needs fighting for. Thank you for doing this while making it a fairly family-friendly film at the same time. I look forward to what other inspirational and well made films Twentieth Century Fox will make in the future…

Violence: Mild / Profanity: Moderate / Sex/Nudity: Mild

See list of Relevant Issues—questions-and-answers.

Viewer CommentsSend your comments
Comments below:
Positive—It shows that parents should get involved with the public school system, like we should.
My Ratings: Moral rating: Better than Average / Moviemaking quality: 4
Terry, age 40 (USA)


Movie Critics
“…a pretty cool story with a pretty cool point… This movie isn’t just about unions or the plight of public schools. It’s about time. Time treasured, time wasted, time brief and fleeting. When we see Malia and Cody struggle with their education, we feel their mothers” sense of urgency. Their kids just don’t have much time to get on the right track. No child does. …”
Paul Asay, Plugged In
“…high marks for class act… I haven’t seen a timelier or more important film this year, and the film’s passion for school choice could hardly be more warranted. … Viewers who doubt the film’s portrayal of some teachers as unmotivated need only do some minimal homework, such as dipping into Steven Brill’s book Class Warfare.” [3/4]
Kyle Smith, New York Post
“…“WON’T BACK Down” jams a sharp stick into the hornet’s nest of public education reform. The result: a lot of buzz. Much of it concentrated on the movie’s financing, put up by conservative money men through Walden Media. …Davis… and Gyllenhaal cut through the spin and speechifying to carve out some affecting human moments. …”
Gary Thompson, Philadelphia Daily News
“…a drama about the quasi-disaster that is today’s American public education system, would very much like to be a Norma Rae-style lump-in-the-throat rabble rouser, and to a good degree it succeeds. Yet the movie —to its credit —never denies the murky complexity of what’s gone wrong in our schools. … the movie doesn’t demonize the union so much as it recognizes the point that director Davis Guggenheim made powerfully in his 2010 documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman’”: that what the union now stands for —among other things, many of them good —is a lack of change. And “Won’t Back Down” says that whatever your feelings about the subject, lack of change cannot be the answer to our public-education crisis. …” [B+]
Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly
“…Grounded in the belief that there are few things sadder than seeing a child say “I can’t,” heavy-handed inspirational drama “Won’t Back Down” centers on a group of parents who organize to take control of their kids” failing elementary school. Grossly oversimplifying the issue at hand, writer-director Daniel Barnz’s disingenuous pot-stirrer plays to audiences” emotions rather than their intelligence…”
Peter Debruge, Variety
“…As effective Hollywood hokum with its first-rate cast, “Won’t Back Down” has riled the opposition who see it as not “based on actual events” but as simply fanciful and argue it really is part of a conspiracy to eradicate teachers unions. “Won’t Back Down” is passionately family friendly. …”
Stephen Schaefer, The Boston Herald
“…very strong moral worldview with very strong free market, anti-statist values and an emphasis on doing what’s right even if it is hard and sacrificing to do the right thing… the script could be more entertaining and dramatic. …”
Ted Baehr, Movieguide

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