Critics describe some films as being a Hallmark or Lifetime movie -- films that are loaded with character clichés and life-changing transformations presented in an overly sentimental fashion.
While this comparison is often not a compliment, there's nothing wrong with a feature film that exhibits such tendencies if they are handled in a clear way. "Won't Back Down" is a Lifetime film that lacks clarity. It bounces through hot-button issues with such randomness that the central message ends up muddied.
At the heart is the story of two mothers (Viola Davis, Maggie Gyllenhaal) who decide to transform their children's failing inner-city Pittsburgh school. They start the long bureaucratic process of taking over the school so they can run it, despite resistance from the faculty, administration, parents and the local teachers union.
Those actions would be enough for any film. But the script by Brin Hill and director Daniel Barnz piles on the emotional fodder with story lines about dyslexia, learning disorders, marital problems and poverty. In an effort to serve them all, none get complete attention.
"Won't Back Down" is inspired by actual events. That means all of these different plot points could have come from the real story. But life is often messy and it's up to a filmmaker to choose a clear direction when trying to tell -- or retell -- a story. Writers and directors have the benefit of hindsight -- to look at the messiest of situations and turn the madness into meaningful moments.
There's a scene where Gyllenhaal's character makes an impassioned plea to the board about to vote on the fate of the takeover. She asks, "Have we forgot what we're here for? We're here for the children."
Barnz should have asked that question of himself during filming.
He also might have asked himself whether being heavy-handed was the best way to go. In making his point about how bad the teachers are in this school, Barnz has one instructor shopping for shoes online while her class turns into a scene from "Lord of the Flies." She's such a bad teacher, it doesn't bother her when she denies a young girl bathroom privileges so long that there's an embarrassing accident.
Since this teacher is the poster girl for the local union, it makes that organization look like it's more concerned with money than the needs of children. The fact Barnz drifts away from his main story to deal with the union, thus including another story line about a union worker (Holly Hunter) and her qualms with the system, just reinforces his lack of focus.
Buried under all of the distracting elements is a gem of an idea. But the numerous tangled plots leave this story of class struggle incomplete.
"Won't Back Down," rated PG for language. Stars Viola Davis, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Oscar Isaac, Holly Hunter. Directed by Daniel Barnz. Running time: 121 minutes. Grade: C Theaters and times for this movie | Other movie reviews
TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, email@example.com
or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.