Is there an actress able to do bone-deep exhaustion better than Viola Davis? In “Won’t Back Down,” she plays Nona Alberts, a third-grade teacher in a crumbling Pittsburgh elementary school. Her marriage is on the rocks and her son (Dante Brown) is struggling in class for reasons that are initially mysterious. She is the very face of the Burned-Out Educator, but, as she did in “The Help,” Davis is able to take a cliché and render it unexpectedly human. Nona’s so spiritually depleted, I wanted to lie down and take a nap. You can tell she once cared, and that it once hurt her to stop caring. Now she no longer even cares about that.
But the movie hopes to be an inspirational fable about parents taking back their schools, so Nona has to find renewed purpose, become a believer again, and Davis does that wonderfully, too, in touching incremental steps. The script, co-written by director Daniel Barnz with Brin Hill, pairs Nona with Jamie Fitzpatrick (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a working-class mom with a dyslexic daughter, Malia (Emily Alyn Lind, who’s very good). Jamie is the never-say-die cheerleader to Nona’s chronic doubter, and Gyllenhaal convinces you of her determination even as Jamie drives everyone in the movie and the audience a little nuts.
They’re two solid characters in search of a better movie, one that might proceed from an interest in genuine human drama rather than a need to convince. The issue on the table is “Parent Trigger” laws such as those that have recently passed in California and several other states: Frustrated to the point of tears by the school’s inability to help Malia — by its wholesale bureaucratic disinterest — Jamie embarks on a petition drive to get the parents and teachers to take over Adams Elementary and create a charter school with its own curriculum and accountability. And no teachers union. The film chews over that one hard and with bogus fair-mindedness.
For the record, “Won’t Back Down” was produced by Walden Media, the film company that’s owned by conservative billionaire Philip Anschutz and that has given us the “Narnia” movies and other family films, some lightly Christian, others secular. Walden also co-produced “Waiting for ‘Superman,’ ” the 2010 documentary on failing schools directed by Davis Guggenheim (“An Inconvenient Truth”), but the company obviously feels the need to reach a broader audience. The issue is contentious, messy, prone to wishful thinking. Some see a corporate plot to privatize schools. Others see a last chance to save them.
“Won’t Back Down” is on the latter side, obviously, and it has the boilerplate urgency of a TV movie that has been blessed with a high-end cast. To its civic credit and dramatic debit, the script lets different characters come at the subject from different angles, often in monologues that play as passionate PowerPoint presentations. The head of the teachers union (Ned Eisenberg) gets his moment when he rallies the office troops, but since he’s portrayed as an opportunistic skunk, it’s impossible to credit him. More interesting are those characters waging an inner struggle, like Holly Hunter’s union rep or the hunky young teacher played by Oscar Isaac. Still, there’s never any doubt on which side they will land, and a climactic board vote feels more cooked up than a Frank Capra finale.
The film is strong on gumption and scant on particulars, and its best moments are quiet, as when Barnz holds the camera on Jamie and Malia for an eternity after they learn they haven’t been picked for a lottery school slot; their hopes seem to collapse in slow motion. “Won’t Back Down” says over and over that we’ve got to do it for the kids. It just never makes clear what “it” is.