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Review: 'Won't Back Down'

Essentially picking up where 2010 documentary Waiting for Superman left off—with hopeful kids and their parents anxiously awaiting their fates in a torturous charter-school lottery—Won’t Back Down, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis, is a rousing film about two women who want to change the direction of their failing neighborhood public school.

Gyllenhaal stars as Jamie Fitzpatrick, a struggling single mom to daughter Malia (Emily Alyn Lind), a 2nd grader who's bullied in class for her dyslexia and ignored by her complacent teacher—the one who has stopped caring about her job once she secured tenure. (Yes, apparently a form of tenure exists outside of the post-secondary ivory tower.)

Joining forces with Nona Alberts (Davis), a jaded teacher at Malia's school with her own parenting problems at home, Jamie works to dismantle the school and start over, taking on the seemingly all-powerful and heartless teacher's union and angering other elementary school teachers in the process. (In this economy, no teacher wants to risk losing his or her job, no matter how idealistic or attractive a parent is.)

Directed by Daniel Barnz (Beastly), Won't Back Down is a fictional story inspired by actual events that speaks to the nightmares many parents face when their school options are limited and their children still need more. While the film is set in Pittsburgh, moms all over the country will be able to relate to this at-times-heartbreaking movie, whether it’s hearing the voices in charge tell Jamie and Nona that nothing can be done, or seeing the look in the children's eyes when they think even their parent has failed them.

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But what's inspiring here is that despite the risks, despite the constant rejection, despite the public humiliation—including a regrettable error Nona must confront with her own son that elicited audible sobs at the screening I attended—these women question themselves but still fight on, small boats against the raging current of red tape.

And as moms, we're right there making flyers with them. We're right there finding the courage to ask alpha moms and bitter moms alike to sign something we aren't sure will actually work. And we're right there, looking our kids in the eye and telling them we wish we could change something and give them something more.

Because we've all been there—frustrated at one system or another that's failing our children. The difference is—and what we sometimes forget—is that we can be that change, too.

What We Love: Seeing the determination of moms is inspiring on every level.

Hold on a Minute: While the film is centered on kids, it's debatable whether they'll want to see it with you, especially the younger ones.

Opens: September 28

MPAA Rating: PG

Running Time: 121 minutes

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