Maggie Gyllenhaal is one of Hollywood's more persuasive female fireballs, teeming with an irrepressible spontaneity that almost always feels organic. She just about carries the whole first half of Won't Back Down on her shoulders, making leaden dialogue float naturally off her tongue, and fully embodying a desperate mother out to change her child's future. Jamie (Gyllenhaal) is a receptionist at a car dealership and part-time bartender whose eight-year-old, Malia (Emily Alyn Lind), attends a Pittsburgh elementary school straight out of Waiting for Superman. Teachers text in class, student-on-student abuse goes unpunished, and Malia, specifically, receives nothing in the way of treating her dyslexia.
Written by Brin Hill and director Daniel Barnz, Won't Back Down gives Gyllenhaal little room to bring plausible life to Jamie, as the character immediately registers as a low-income cliché who hurriedly stirs her morning coffee with the toothbrush she's using. But the actress is game from the get-go, even knowing to dial it back and bring realism to rally-the-troops moments, which can so often mean curtains for inspirational teacher movies. In a fact-based film about courting parents to reform an entire school (the actual case occurred in L.A. in 2010), Gyllenhaal makes the woman leading the charge seem wholly capable. In her corner is Viola Davis, whose character, Nona, is in a crisis of hypocrisy, trying to find quality education for her own son, Cody (Dante Brown), while being among the uninspired teachers at Malia's hellhole. The women meet at a lottery offering access to the area's best alternative school, and after failing to make the cut, Jamie convinces Nona to help overthrow the very administration that writes her checks.
For a long while, Won't Back Down has a serious exposition problem, presenting a documentary's worth of education jargon via preachy chats that play like tutorials (pounding the pavement, Jamie and Nona consult oodles of bureaucrats who take turns playing narrator). This gives way to a lot of contrived and by-the-book conflicts, including spats with teachers concerned about the planned overhaul's lack of union protection. For her part, Davis initially seems remarkably checked out, and it's truly hard to tell if she's playing Nona as dead inside or if she's merely phoning this one in. But the performance indeed blossoms into something characteristically impressive, gaining vibrancy as Jamie's initiative gains results, and peaking with a tearful revelation from Nona to her son, wherein the ever-humane Davis expertly breaks your heart. Most will likely see the twists coming in this formulaic crowd-pleaser, but one of its strengths is a knowledge of when to unfurl information, particularly for the strongest emotional effect. A final reveal about Jamie is quite convenient, but perfectly delivered, and by the time it arrives the film has caught up to Gyllenhaal, its viewers as swayed as the doubtful parents Jamie solicits.
The union issue is bound to bring Won't Back Down a good deal of flack, either for the film's somewhat conservative stance of taking unions to task, or for its tackling of the topic in a way that could surely be seen as thin. The means by which the film provides the facts is without doubt its weakest aspect, but it's more a narrative snafu than a half-assed political statement. As Evelyn, a morally conflicted teacher's union president, Holly Hunter has to share scenes with Ned Eisenberg's poorly drawn monster of a left-wing stereotype, who's matched in cartoonish ignorance by a neglectful teacher played by Nancy Bach. It's these mustache-twirlers who contribute to some outrageous climactic developments, which work hard to chip away at Won't Back Down's credibility. But this is a movie about people first, boasting a lot of acting talent to pick up its slack. And if it falls short of conveying truly informed objectivity, its central crisis is one that's rather vividly bipartisan, as the nationwide disease of lackluster, tenure-protected teachers is something heavily documented. "No kid will get left behind!" Nona tells a colleague in the thick of the second act, and it's a testament to Won't Back Down's worth that you want to hear more instead of roll your eyes.