Won’t Back Down: Fact-Inspired Tale of Educational System, Starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Holly Hunter

“Won’t Back Down,” directed by Daniel Barnz (who made last year’s disappointing feature, “Beastly”), opens with an elementary school girl standing before a chalkboard, barely able to sound out the word “story.”

Her teacher hardly notices her struggle—she’s texting away at her desk and shopping online for footwear. All the other kids in class are completely distracted. The girl’s alone.

Is this a microcosm of our education system in the Obama era? The heavy-handed “Won’t Back Down” answers emphatically in the affirmative.

This social problem film comes from Walden Media, a company that’s been widely criticized for having a Christian/conservative agenda. Walden’s best known for the “Chronicles of Narnia” films and the controversial documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman’” (2010).

“Won’t Back Down” is fictional but “inspired by actual events”: a successful campaign by parents to transform a dying California school into a healthy charter school that was freed from the influence of any teachers union. This film’s really looking for trouble with its insulting portrayal of (most, not all) teachers and especially the teachers union. Its release so soon after the Chicago Teachers Union strike, in which teachers looked heroic to many, probably will make it harder for “Won’t Back Down” to persuade viewers who don’t already share its politics.

In “Won’t Back Down,” the California story has been transplanted, in an attempt to add grit, to a Pittsburgh neighborhood in ruins. Jamie (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a single mom too poor to transfer her daughter, Malia (Emily Alyn Lind)—the girl first seen at the blackboard—anywhere better. Malia suffers from dyslexia and is certain to never improve in the worst class in the worst school, which Barnz makes sure to shoot as conspicuously prisonlike.

Mom eventually learns about a law that allows parents and teachers to take over a school in trouble—if at least 50 percent of them sign a petition. She badgers one of the beleaguered teachers, Nona (Viola Davis), to join her in the crusade. “You want to start a school with me?” Jamie asks. But it’s not really a question, it’s an order. Jamie’s wildly determined, but the character often comes off as selfish and insensitive.

Nona’s also in a bad place: a sincere teacher at heart, she’s lost most of her faith in a system that isn’t helping her students or her “slow” son, Cody (Dante Brown), who’s about the same age as Malia.

Jamie and Nona go door to door to convince that 50 percent that their idea will work while creating a 400-page proposal and trying to bore their way through a massive wall of bureaucracy just to reach a public hearing and a vote by the coldhearted school board. Barnz draws the women’s fight out, exhausting his viewership. This is one of those two-hour movies that feels more like four.

The union—in this case, the evil union—is always working behind the scenes to make sure the law can’t work. A union leader (Ned Eisenberg) at one point dismisses Jamie and Nona’s plan as “handing over planes to the passengers.”

Holly Hunter plays the role of a devout union member who gradually goes through a full-on anti-union awakening.

“Won’t Back Down” makes such a simplistic argument against the teachers union, wholly ignoring the larger social forces that are undermining US education, that it disqualifies itself as a serious contribution to the national discourse.

There are other problems, as well: Gyllenhaal’s manic performance doesn’t mesh well with Davis’s subtler work. The story of their friendship, which should’ve been the core of this movie, doesn’t engage like it should, principally because Gyllenhaal’s character annoys. Why does Davis’s character put up with her as she does?

“Won’t Back Down” is poorly written by Barnz and Brin Hill, with a number of key scenes that misfire. In one, parents chant “We will not wait!” like it’s the Russian Revolution. In another, Nona’s shown running her class like a military academy. The film goes berserk as it nears its close, with ridiculous revelations and crazed speeches hitting one after another.

“Won’t Back Down”—hyped up, over the top, loud, and inarticulate—isn’t the thoughtful, thought-provoking consideration of our educational woes that it pretends to be.