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Won't Back Down

Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal in "Won't Back Down."

If you believe there's something fundamentally wrong with America's public schools, there are plenty of complaints to choose from.

Teachers might say that parents have abdicated their responsibilities. Parents might say that tax cuts have eroded the revenue base. Revenue generators might say that teachers unions have protected bad educators. And a reasonably well-educated film critic might say that nobody in this complicated equation is teaching kids or their taxpaying parents to think critically, making them vulnerable to slick propaganda such as “Won't Back Down.”

This heart-tugging movie claims to be “inspired by true events.” It's true that in California a couple of years ago, parents in an underperforming district petitioned to turn a local school into a charter operation. But this fake-populist movie doesn't tell us that the “parent trigger” option got codified into laws that were drafted and promoted by an anti-union group called the American Legislative Exchange Council, which is financially supported by billionaires such as the Koch brothers and Philip Anschutz. The latter owns America's largest movie-theater chain and the pseudo-studio that produced this deceitful attack on teachers unions (as well as the documentary “Waiting for Superman”).

The story has been highly fictionalized and exported to Pittsburgh, where struggling single mom Jamie (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is appalled that dyslexic daughter Malia (Emily Alyn Lind) is neglected by a tenured teacher who is more interested in her cellphone than in her students.

Jamie's complaints catch the receptive ear of conscientious teacher Nona (Viola Davis), who joins Jamie's campaign to petition the district to dissolve the teachers union. They must go door-to-door to enlist the majority of the parents — and of the teachers themselves, who slowly embrace the unsupported notion that union "scumbags" are thwarting education.

One of the last hold-outs is Jamie's new love interest, a progressive young teacher named Michael (Oscar Isaac) who is stuck in the '60s. But when a union boss played by Holly Hunter hints that teachers who support the parental takeover will be blacklisted, Michael discards his communist-red union T-shirt and sides with the wrecking crew

While the cast is filled with award winners, writer-director Daniel Barnz is a dunce who can't construct an argument without employing flimsy logic and cardboard characters.

In real life, good parents and good teachers won't back down on this simple rule: Do your homework.


Two stars out of four • Rating PG • Run time 2:00 • Content mature thematic elements and strong language