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Hope at the Movies



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The best antidote I’ve had to Obama’s “this is the best we can do,” “there’s no hope, so don’t change” reelection campaign didn’t come, alas, from Mitt Romney.

It’s the new film Won’t Back Down, from the same Walden Media who gave us the outstanding documentary Waiting For Superman.

As a parent and a lifelong advocate of school choice, I absolutely love the story of the film: A parent horrified by her daughter’s awful education joins with a once-jaded school teacher to take over their local public elementary school and rescue kids from union-imposed mediocrity.

But the bigger message of the film is that there is, in fact, hope — hope for a better future for our kids, and redemption for those who’ve lost sight of their ideals. In the current “nobody could do any better” climate, Won’t Back Down arrives at just the right time.

The film is based on real events surrounding efforts by frustrated parents and teachers across the country to use “parent trigger” laws to transform failing schools. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays the poorly educated Pittsburgh mom who wants a better future for her dyslexic third-grade daughter. She sees a teacher from her daughter’s school (Viola Davis) at a lottery for the handful of slots in a high-performing charter school and believes she can be an ally for reform.

What Gyllenhaal’s character doesn’t know — and what the film unfolds with tremendous emotional power — is how far this teacher has fallen from her own ideals, and how she believes she has failed her own, academically struggling son.

The entire cast is solid — in particular the nuanced performance by Holly Hunter as a union official haunted by her once-high ideals — but the heart, soul, and star of Don’t Back Down is Davis. Not only is her performance Oscar-worthy, but the decision by writers Brin Hill and Daniel Barnz to put a teacher at the heart of the reform efforts makes the film less polemic and more alive.#more#

Not that the film is polemic-free. The inept, lazy teachers who oppose reform and thuggish, “Do the kids pay union dues?” teachers’ union boss are caricatures. Fortunately, they aren’t central characters in the film. Far more disturbing are the attacks launched on Gyllenhaal and Davis by reform opponents, including desperate personal attacks, that are based on real attacks in “parent trigger” battles across the country.

“Some of the things that really happened were so over-the-top, we left them out of the movie,” Walden Media’s Michael Flaherty told me.  “In California, reform oppents went to Hispanic parents who signed the parent-trigger petitions and told them, if they didn’t remove their names, they would be deported. Can you believe it?”

After watching Won’t Back Down — absolutely.

I previewed an unfinished director’s cut which, Flaherty went out of his way to tell me, was “a little slow.” And the film takes its time letting the two main characters develop, to show that they’re not political activists or knee-jerk union bashers, but rather real people who truly care about their kids — and the classrooms they’re trapped in.

The last 45 minutes of the film, however, are tremendously powerful. Rather than the methodical march of a populist David vs. a government Goliath, there are plot twists that surprise and energize. You don’t have to care about education reform or a lost generation of kids to care about Viola Davis’s character and her fight for redemption.

There will be tears. There will be joy. And, if enough parents and voters see this film, there may even be change.

— Michael Graham is a Boston-area talk-show host. 



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