Bored and visibly sneering as she fiddles with her cellphone while sitting at her desk, the grade school teacher barely takes notice of the sweet young girl challenged by learning disabilities. The student stands nervously before the blackboard, struggling to read a sentence aloud. The other students mock her, cruelly. The teacher tacitly encourages the mockery. She is union-protected mediocrity incarnate, and she may as well be shown tying the student to a railroad track, Snidely Whiplash-style.
This is the first image of the first educator we see on screen in "Won't Back Down." So you know exactly where the movie stands straight off. Set in Pittsburgh, it represents an unusually blunt attempt to make movie audiences feel good about feeling lousy about public education and the good-for-nothing union-coddled teachers destroying a generation of learners.
It's an interesting time to encounter such a film, especially in Chicago, where we have just come through a teachers' strike and where many editorial writers and columnists (and at least one mayor) will likely find themselves nodding in agreement with the movie's message, however artlessly dramatized. Produced by Walden Media and starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis as the fed-up parent and parent/teacher who won't back down, the film (like the pro-charter school documentary "Waiting for Superman" before it) sees a single righteous path out of the forest of terrible test scores and beaten-down educators. This is "Norma Rae" with two Normas for the price of one, except now the union rallying cry is inwardly directed: Quit whining, you losers.
Valiantly making do on two jobs (selling cars and tending bar) earning her $23,000 a year, our heroine is single mother Jamie Fitzpatrick, played by Gyllenhaal with fervent, wide-eyed and rather wearying intensity. Her daughter (Emily Alyn Lind) is barely surviving her local elementary school, where Nona, an educator played by Davis, is coping with a fresh divorce and her own son's learning challenges.
Some scenes in "Won't Back Down" will be painfully familiar to any parent who's endured the bizarre practice of the bingo-type lottery, with a roomful of desperate citizens vying for a precious handful of open slots at a desired school. Early in the movie Jamie and her daughter compete, unsuccessfully, in one such lottery at a bright shining neighborhood charter organization, blessedly free from the shackles of union contracts and fat, un-American pensions. (Ving Rhames plays the principal, so you know the school means business.) The idea is planted: Thanks to a so-called "parent trigger law" (the script never actually uses the phrase), it's possible for Jamie to form a coalition of angry parents and dissatisfied teachers and try to convince the local school board to allow the crummy public school to turn private, thus allowing every child to flower. She and Nona become "parentroopers" in their war against public-education lameness.
"Won't Back Down" isn't a badly made film. Director and co-writer Daniel Barnz knows how to move a camera around and block out traffic patterns, as in the introduction of Jamie, bustling through her hurry-up morning routine in a single unbroken take. Davis, in particular, manages to create a fully dimensional character in the midst of a highly polemical screenplay. The supporting cast includes Rosie Perez (as Nona's fellow teacher) and Holly Hunter as a teachers union muckety-muck who, like David Janssen's liberal reporter in "The Green Berets," converts to the cause at hand.
The film pays occasional lip service to those who, like Jamie's love interest (Oscar Isaac as a teacher who actually gives a rip), aren't charter school champions at first. But the script goes very heavy on references to union-protected "checked-out zombies," while stinting on specifics about how Jamie and Nona's dream school would actually differ from the public school they're trying to reform. When Davis is allowed to take charge (which isn't often; she's more of a noble upscale sidekick to Gyllenhaal's working-class heroine), "Won't Back Down" starts getting somewhere as drama. On the lowest possible eye-rolling level it's hard not to respond emotionally to scenes such as the heinous teacher, the one messing with her smartphone in the intro scene, confining Jamie's long-suffering daughter to a janitor's closet for punishment. See what organized labor will do? It will lock your daughter in a janitor's closet.
Right, left or center, once a movie has sunk to that sort of hyperbolic implication, not even Viola Davis can salvage it.
'Won't Back Down' -- 1 1/2 stars
MPAA rating: PG (for thematic elements and language)
Running time: 2:01