‘Won’t Back Down’ Review | Reel Movie Nation

  • Cast
  • Realness
  • Costumes
  • Cinematography
  • Ending

‘Won’t Back Down’

Director: Daniel Barnz
Producer: Mark Johnson
Actors: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Holly Hunter
Writer: Brin Hill, Daniel Barnz
Editing: Kristina Boden
Music: Marcelo Zarvos
Cinematography: Roman Osin

Won’t Back Down is a powerful film; packed to the brim with emotion, passion, and courage about two mothers desperate for a change in the overly corrupt school system in the Pittsburgh area. This movie captured my attention from the start with its extraordinary realness. This is evident in the camera techniques used and the acting, by not only the main characters but all the supporting cast as well. What made this even more real was the subject matter, which deals with a very real problem that schools and parents are facing these days: lazy tenured teachers causing schools and students to fail.


At Adams Elementary there are two types of teachers: the ones who actually teach and the ones don’t care anymore because they have tenure. Malia is a new student in class who happens to be dyslexic. When she is asked to read aloud she has trouble, which causes the students to start laughing at her while the teacher does nothing to help.  Enter Malia’s mother, Jamie (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who sees the teacher’s ineffectiveness and immediately starts trying to find other options for her daughter, but on a single mother’s paycheck in the city it is tough to make an affordable decision. When Malia is denied the right to change classrooms within the school, Jamie decides she has had enough and needs to take a stand. Nona Alberts (Viola Davis) is one of those teachers who still care, especially since her son Cody is also struggling in school. Together, Nona and Jamie fight the system and work to take back their school.

The Good 

The Divine Cast

Viola Davis delivers a stellar performance, showing the struggle of being a teacher and the parent of a child who has trouble in school. My heart melted every time she started to falter, Davis made me feel her sadness and pain. My love for Maggie Gyllenhaal continues to grow as she keeps landing roles that are so perfect, and maturing as an actress since her Donnie Darko days. She captures the urgency of single mother Jaime so well. Her spirit, along with Viola Davis’s passion, is enough to carry the whole movie. But then you add in Holly Hunter as the woman fighting back against the changes to the school, and you have one sassy group of strong females. Emily Alyn Lind (Malia) and Dante Brown (Cody Alberts) play pivotal roles as the children who would fail without notice if they’re not given the chance to succeed.

A Story That Rings True

I find it amazing that nothing was forced, especially when it comes to the characters. The interaction between the two leaders with the school board, the Teachers Association of Pennsylvania (TAP), and the parents who don’t want to risk trying to fix the broken system are all incredibly realistic. We are very much sitting in the classroom with Malia as the other kids are picking on her, or standing with Jamie as she is giving her speeches. Even when they are just cooking dinner at the apartment, it feels completely real and natural. It took me to the point of whispering suggestions at the screen, because I was really into the movie.

Wonderful  Costumes

The patterns, colors, fabrics, and fit of this wardrobe is just incredible. Luca Mosca, who was the lead costume designer for 21, Vantage Point, and most recently Premium Rush, put together the perfect outfits for everyone.  It is difficult to dress people naturally without it looking staged, but by having the characters re-wear certain pieces it created another element of realism throughout.  I went to see the movie with a friend, and the two of us couldn’t help talking about how much we loved each new outfit worn by Jamie and Nona. We both agreed that we would raid their closets.


The way this was filmed makes you feel like you are walking around with these people. It’s stunning and at times maybe a bit overwhelming, because the experience of watching it reminded me of a documentary rather than a feature film. I felt a little dizzy at times if someone on screen was running or spinning, because you become even more apart of everything. It’s cool to watch, and really draws you into the story.

The Okay

The Ending Leaves Me Wanting More

Wanting more once a movie is over is generally a good thing, but this time I wanted maybe just ten more minutes of explanation.  I hate giving spoilers, so I’ll try to describe it without ruining anything.  The end of the movie is a reminder of the beginning, where we see Malia reading out loud. However, now it can show the progress of the film in one short clip. I enjoyed the ending, but it wasn’t quite like the rest of the film mainly due to the editing cuts of the action. While it was somewhat prolific and an excellent moment for goose bumps, I was left feeling a big awkward afterward. I don’t want a sequel, just a ten minute wrap up of how everything turns out.

Overall Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

I really loved Won’t Back Down and would urge you all to check it out if you are a fan of Freedom Writers or Sister Act 2. I wasn’t quite sold on this film watching the trailers, but after seeing it I was more than satisfied. I look forward to catching it again once it is on DVD.

‘Won’t Back Down’ Trailer