"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.
Coincidentally, the movie advances a conservative reform, the idea of so-called "parent trigger" provisions, already law in four states (though yet to be used to reform a single school).
These laws permit parental majorities at failing public schools to trigger a conversion to a charter school - giving parents the right to remove union protections, fire teachers and administrators, change work rules.
"Won't Back Down" presents a utopian version of this - a single mom (Maggie Gyllenhaal) with a struggling child teams with a reform-minded teacher (Viola Davis) in a bid to take over their failing Pittsburgh public school (where 2 percent of kids go to college; at a private school nearby, 98 percent go to college).
In trigger-law reality, teachers tend not to be part of the process. In states where the laws exist, it's strictly parent-driven, and often opposed by the PTA and parents groups sympathetic to unions.
And opposed, of course, by unions - a big part of the story in "Won't Back Down." Holly Hunter is a union administrator charged with stopping the takeover. "Won't Back Down" spends a lot of time in union offices, and gives full voice to reasonable pro-union arguments advanced by leaders, who wonder: "When did Norma Rae become the bad guy?"
"Won't Back Down" is clearly and obviously a movie that advocates reform, but in an effort to present all sides of this complicated issue, bends over backward, sideways, frontways - to the point that it's like screenwriting yoga.
The movie at times drowns in exposition, even when it tries to channel this through character - Gyllenhaal's activist, for instance, falls for a pro-union teacher (Oscar Isaac) and they hash out their arguments over beer.
So it has some problems, like an overactive third-act plot, but it also has Davis, Hollywood go-to gal for bringing gravitas and emotional resonance to imperfect dramatic vehicles ("The Help"). She and Gyllenhaal cut through the spin and speechifying to carve out some affecting human moments.