Viola Davis, left, and Maggie Gyllenhaal star in "Won't Back… (Kerry Hayes, Walden Media )
The new film "Won't Back Down" tells the story of a crusading single mother and a dedicated teacher who take on a bad principal, an unforgiving union and an entrenched bureaucracy in an attempt to improve a failing public elementary school.
The real-life tale couldn't be more topical: The Chicago teachers strike brought public school reform to the forefront of the national conversation. But the film's relevance is proving problematic too. Pro-union, anti-charter school advocates began denouncing "Won't Back Down" weeks ahead of its Friday release, making the movie a target in ways its makers hadn't intended.
Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, issued a public letter at the end of August condemning the movie for laying the blame for underperforming schools at the feet of the teachers union.
Earlier this month, protesters spoke out against "Won't Back Down" when it screened in Charlotte, N.C., during the Democratic National Convention. And most recently, demonstrators lined the street at the film's New York premiere objecting to the idea that it's up to parents to reclaim troubled schools.
"I am surprised," said producer Mark Johnson of the early negative response to the movie. "Maybe I've been naive about this, but I think it's a David and Goliath story: two women, two mothers from completely different backgrounds who get involved in trying to do something about the sorry state of this particular school."
Written by Brin Hill and director David Barnz, "Won't Back Down" stars Maggie Gyllenhaal as struggling Pittsburgh mom Jamie, who, concerned that her young daughter Malia is receiving a substandard education at Adams Elementary, takes advantage of a newly enacted "parent trigger" law that allows parents and teachers to reclaim failing schools.
She finds a powerful ally in Davis' Nona, a beleaguered instructor at the school.
California enacted the first "parent trigger" law in the country in 2010, around the same time Barnz was hired to direct "Won't Back Down." Coming from a family of teachers, Barnz says he had a personal connection to the material, but he was aware of the mixed reaction to Davis Guggenheim's 2010 documentary "Waiting for 'Superman,'" which critics also decried as anti-union and anti-teacher.
"Won't Back Down" features plenty of committed teachers, some pro-union, others critical of its policies, and a bureaucrat (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) willing to help the activists in their cause. But the film also includes a checked-out teacher who shops online and rarely engages with her students, and a union head, played by Holly Hunter, who tries to bribe Jamie and considers engaging in a smear campaign against Nona.
Her colleague, played by Ned Eisenberg, is shown to be completely out of touch with what goes on in the classroom.
Still, Barnz disagrees with the idea that the film, which was financed by Denver billionaire Phil Anschutz's Walden Media, the same company that worked on the release of "Waiting for 'Superman'" with Participant Media and Paramount Vantage, is anti-union.
"That is not the point of the movie. The movie is about how parents come together with teachers to transform a school for the sake of the kids," said Barnz, adding that despite Anschutz's conservative politics, the businessman never gave Barnz input on the script.
Over the last few weeks, the film's distributor 20th Century Fox has hosted scores of word-of-mouth screenings across the country, in addition to special events at both the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., and the DNC in Charlotte.
Those screenings included question-and-answer sessions with Barnz, Johnson and many advocates for school reform including Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of the Washington, D.C., school district, Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, among others.
"I hope it activates people to do something about education in our country," said Gyllenhaal of the film.
Opening weekend expectations for "Won't Back Down" remain soft, with the $19-million movie on track to pull in less than $5 million when it opens against the sci-fi time travel film "Looper" and the animated comedy "Hotel Transylvania."
"On opening day, 95% of the audience that goes to see the film will go based on advertising material rather than any of the so-called controversy," Johnson said.
He went on to point out that at a time when female-driven, adult dramas are hard to find, "Won't Back Down" is the rare issues-driven underdog story featuring lead performances from two Oscar-nominated actresses.
"If you look at the successful issues movies, 'Erin Brockovich,' 'Norma Rae,' and you think about why you liked those movies, I bet you don't remember what the issues are. What you remember are the characters realizing they can accomplish something, going up against a monolithic institution and being able to change it."